Understaffed Counseling Services navigates ‘exacerbated’ student needs during the pandemic

By Mateusz Janik, Senior Reporter

Ryan Brumback

With national statistics showing nearly 80% of college students are worried about their mental health amid the pandemic, Columbia’s Counseling Services office is currently operating while short-staffed and without a director.

“They’ve had a short staff for a very long time,” said Craig Sigele, academic manager of the Communication Department and president of the United Staff of Columbia College, or USofCC. “They had ads trying to recruit people, but they haven’t filled [the spots], and that’s been since September. People continue to leave because of the environment.”

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education on Jan. 26, research institutes New America and Third Way surveyed 1,008 college students nationwide in both August and December 2020 to better understand the pandemic’s impact on current and prospective students.

The survey showed students becoming increasingly concerned about their mental health, with 73% reporting “some” or “significant” concerns in August and 79% reporting concerns in December.

According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 report “adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms” tied to the pandemic, and the percentage of the same respondents who have seriously considered suicide is the highest among any other demographic at over 25 percent.

Since September, Columbia’s Counseling Services staff has been without a director. It is currently operating with two therapists and an administrative assistant, as well as two graduate student interns for the 2020-2021 school year, according to a Mar. 12 email to the Chronicle from Beverly Anderson, associate dean of Student Health and Support.

In a Feb. 18 email to the Chronicle, Dean of Students John Pelrine said the department is “currently budgeted for four therapists, one coordinator, one director and an administrative assistant.”

In the job openings section of its careers website, Columbia currently lists staff therapist, coordinator of counseling services and director of counseling services among its open positions. The director position was posted on Oct. 12, 2020.

Julia Ravenscroft, a junior acting major, said she had never thought of talking to a therapist until she learned of Columbia’s Counseling Services when she came to the college in 2019.

While trying to schedule a session with a therapist at some point in the middle of the Fall 2019 semester, Ravenscroft said she was told there were no more spaces available and that she would have to try again during the next semester.

Eventually, she was able to get three individual sessions before the pandemic hit in March.

After students, faculty and staff were sent home in March due to the pandemic, Ravenscroft said she did not hear anything from Counseling Services until April when she received an email from the office with links to mental health resources, but no information for how to continue her sessions with the college.

Ravenscroft said she tried contacting Counseling Services again by phone in September of 2020 but did not hear back.

The Counseling Services web page currently says, “Due to high demand there is delayed availability,” but encourages students to make an appointment through the website, indicating a Student Relations staff member will reach out to them to discuss needs and may connect them with “campus and community resources—including local therapists—to mitigate a student’s concerns.”

Joan McGrath, administrative assistant in the Cinema and Television Arts Department and grievance co-chair of USofCC, said in a Feb. 18 email that therapists from Counseling Services contacted USofCC in Fall 2017 because they needed help voicing problems for the college to address.

Less than a month after meeting with USofCC, McGrath said one of the four therapists on staff was fired for taking sick time beyond the 10-day allotment and using vacation time to cover additional sick time. Therapists were not allowed to use vacation time to supplement sick time due to an internal policy different than that of the college, and the therapist was told that “therapists need to be there for the students.”

McGrath said the issues reported included a stressful managerial environment, concerns for how clinical interns were being used and poorly communicated policy changes that were not put into writing.

In 2018, she said therapists wanted to try and fix working conditions themselves, but felt like they could not take time away from counseling students in order to advocate for a better work environment. Later in 2019, USofCC began advocating for pay increases when therapists approached them because Columbia therapists were on the low end of the pay scale compared to other local institutions.

McGrath said she also heard from therapists that in 2018 and 2019 students were coming for counseling with a “higher level of acuity,” which McGrath said meant “their mental illness was much more serious.”

As a result of the union advocating for a job study to review the equity of union positions, McGrath said the staff therapist minimum salary was raised from about $38,000 to $45,000 in September 2016. In March 2020, counseling staff received pay increases around 31% to 38%, with the possibility of incoming therapists being paid as much as $60,000, McGrath said.

McGrath said a letter written by an exiting therapist to the dean of students and associate dean of Student Health led to an audit of Counseling Services by a college auditor. The content of the completed audit was not shared with therapists, though McGrath said the therapists were all interviewed for it.

In a Feb. 16 email to the Chronicle, Pelrine wrote: “The college policy on matters like this allows only employees with a need to know to be informed of internal audits or investigations. If there was an audit, no Columbia employee would be allowed to discuss it with you.”

Barry Schreier, communications committee chair for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said the only way to adequately know how a college’s counseling services office is operating is to get the exact number of contracted clinical hours per week and the percent of utilization from that office directly. This is known as the Clinical Load Index.

The Chronicle was unable to verify if the college has ever used the CLI model as of publication.

In her March 12 email to the Chronicle, Anderson said she did not have any numbers to offer the Chronicle measuring student demand during the pandemic. However, since the onset of the pandemic, Anderson said staff members “have noticed that the pandemic has exacerbated symptoms that were already present for students,” such as stress, anxiety and loneliness.

Schreier said most college counseling centers have shifted their services to operate mainly through telemental health services during the pandemic.

“It was not a present model a year ago, and now it’s the most present model for most centers because of the ability for folks to do remote counseling,” Schreier said.

According to informal and internal surveys conducted in 2020 by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, Schreier said institutions that belong to AUCCCD have reported that telehealth communication services have a higher satisfaction rate among students.

In the email sent to the Chronicle Feb. 18, Pelrine said Counseling Services is “providing telemental health services in addition to keeping in-person opportunities available” and that students have been reacting positively to the remote services.

“I think [online counseling sessions are] better because I’m in the comfort of my own home, and I don’t have to make the commute—when bad days hit sometimes anything feels like too much,” said Nik Brecht, a junior illustration major. “I think with the right therapist or another type of provider, it can be a very good experience.”

Brecht said he sought help through the college’s Counseling Services last semester due to issues with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although it took two weeks after reaching out to hear from someone at the office, Brecht said he eventually was able to attend three sessions remotely with Columbia’s telemental health services before deciding not to continue any further counseling through the school.

“I don’t want to slam them, but I do think they really need to reevaluate how they handle some things,” Brecht said.