Too many students, not enough counselors
Sign at the Counseling and Wellness Center front desk. Photo by Naomi Nerlien.

Too many students, not enough counselors

The Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) serves New College by providing therapy and medical services to students. The center also holds events throughout the semester that help students establish wellness principles in their own routines. A mission such as this requires a team behind it, however. Since the beginning of the Spring 2024 term, the CWC has resorted to placing students on a waitlist because they are down a counselor. The Catalyst spoke with the Program Director for Counseling Services Dr. Keith Kokseng to get an understanding of the situation.

Employee Shortage 

Kokseng began with a general description of why the center is struggling. He mentioned that this isn’t an isolated event, but that schools across the state are experiencing similar problems. “All of us are experiencing the same shortage when it comes to being able to hire and keep mental health professionals. So we were theorizing this because there isn’t a shortage per se, in the private practice world. And oftentimes, many folks are actually leaving college counseling to go do private practice.” He explained that this is because, in short, college counseling doesn’t pay as much as working independently in private practice. 

The CWC is currently recruiting for one full-time counselor and an associate director. Both of these individuals will see clients, but the latter will also take on administrative duties such as managing medical records. Current counselors carry a full caseload, causing them to have very limited availability.

“It’s difficult in a college setting because we have natural breaks,” Kokseng said, referring to Fall, Winter and Summer breaks. “And because of the limited number of people that we have, and the high utilization that we have, we can’t guarantee that you can keep that therapist ongoing because it is a first come, first served basis. And we have to make sure that we’re able to have availability for new students as well, too.”

Dr. Kokseng said he understands the pull towards private practice and the increase in remote work because of the pandemic, but hopes people will come back to work in-person. 

“There is something to be said of working in an organization with like minded folk. I know this from our counselors here. One of the most valuable times that we have is something called a ‘treatment team,’ where we discuss complicated cases, we do professional development things to ensure that we’re really up to date with the techniques or just the, you know, the population. So we’re doing the most ethical type of work. And you don’t get that when you’re just by yourself doing private practice. So we’re hoping that this thing swings back and people are going to be more encouraged to come back to be a part of a team that really wants to just work towards helping other folk.” 

Funding troubles 

Larger universities use online services such as Telehealth or TimelyCare, which allow students to access mental health professionals beyond the confines of regular business hours. However, Kokseng explained, solutions like these are just out of reach for small institutions such as New College. 

“The way that we’re funded is both through something called a health fee and through E&G (Education and General) budget…, The health fee. which can range from about $6 to $7, all the way up to $10 is per credit hour per student. Because we only have about 700 students, that doesn’t equate to a lot of dollars for us to be able to do a lot of service. But at the University of South Florida (USF) when they have like 30,000 or 40,000 students, that equates to a lot of money that they’re able to use to be able to provide service, hire psychologists or counselors or hire these things like TimelyCare…” Kokseng trailed off and shook his head. 

Though the CWC isn’t serving thousands of students, the current health fee of $6.82 doesn’t stretch far. “You multiply that [$6.82 health fee] times the amount of students that we have, and we have a good amount of money in theory, but it’s not enough to run an entire service with the amount of utilization. And that same fee also supports our Student Health Services. Actually, it’s a primary thing that we use to support student health services to hire our nurse practitioner. So because of our low enrollment, or just the low size of our institution, we just don’t have the same opportunities as some of the other larger schools.”

Fortunately, there are other resources beyond health fees and the E&G budget to help support counseling services, including Foundation funds. “The Foundation is purely people donating money,” Kokseng said. “These Foundation dollars can be used for pretty much anything unless a donor specifies.”

Lastly, there is auxiliary money. “Our health auxiliary or housing auxiliary can only be used for what those things are identified for,  based on that fee structure. This is the same across all of the state university systems.”

Even with money coming from all these sources, there are restrictions on what money can be used for certain things. Organizing these limited funds into a fully functioning mental health program is a difficult task. Still, the CWC makes it work. Though students may encounter a wait for ongoing one-on-one therapy, there are other services offered to care for mental wellbeing.

How the CWC still helps students and other resources for support

QR code and list of services Case Manager Sarah Merritt provides to students. Photo by Naomi Nerlien. 

Case Manager Dr. Sarah Merritt can help students with or without insurance to understand their options including low cost, no cost, or sliding scale. There is also a crisis service number that students can call for immediate situations. 

Crisis Line number posted in the CWC office. Photo by Naomi Nerlien.

Kokseng explained what a crisis service is and what might happen during a call. “A crisis service, which is available at all times of the day, is going to help manage that specific experience or event or crisis. So if someone is having thoughts of suicide, if someone is having a recent breakup, or they’re just feeling overwhelmed, they can contact and be on the phone with a clinician or with a therapist to talk it through. And they’ll do things like coping skills, grounding strategies and empathetic listening skills.” The CWC may follow up with a student after a crisis call, which often leads to ongoing therapy, he said. 

Poster advertising a support group displayed in Hamilton “Ham” Center. Photo by Naomi Nerlien. 

Online scheduling is now available for case management, counseling services and medical services provided by the Nurse Practitioner on campus. Along with its Instagram and Facebook, the CWC updates NovoConnect regularly with events the center holds on campus. “We want to reduce barriers here; we want to make sure that people know that we exist.” Kokseng concluded. 

Sarasota and Manatee counties also offer good resources for students looking for support. For example, the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) serves the area with support groups and drop-in wellness centers. 

You Are Not Alone (YANA) Group hand out available around campus. Photo by Naomi Nerlien. 

The CWC is continuing to reach out and conduct interviews to fill the empty spots on their employee roster. Until then, students need not worry about the abundance of ways they can tend to their mental health while in college.

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