In the last two years, University Counseling Services‘ number of clients increased by 100, making the total number of clients more than double what it was ten years ago. To meet the growing needs of students, UCS hired two new counselors.
The new counselors, one of whom is a social worker who will act as a case manager for UCS, will allow the center to operate more efficiently, be open more often, to lighten the case load of each counselor and provide better care to students, focus on issues such as suicide prevention and implement programs such as the new equine group therapy program.
Brenda Higgins, University Counseling Services director, says the two new counselors, Matt Stocks and Angel Utt, bring a lot of benefits to the center, especially because one is a social worker.
“We have had a social worker on our staff in the past and it’s just a little different perspective that adds to our team,” Higgins says.
Higgins says the center was able to hire new staff because the administration recognized the difficulty of serving an exponentially growing number of students in need.
Higgins says there was a concern about the amount of time it was taking students to be seen at UCS. She says it was a good thing the University saw the need and made the commitment to finding new staff. Higgins says a good number of students who leave the University do so for mental health reasons, and she says being able to provide better care for students will allow the money being spent on new staff to return to the University in the form of retained students.
“We were doing our best to meet the needs of students, but it’s very hard for therapists to keep maybe 50 clients in their mind all the time,” Higgins says. “I think students were expressing those concerns to others.”
Higgins says she thinks the reason the number of students using UCS resources has increased is multi-faceted. Higgins says on the one hand, UCS has been working to reduce the stigma behind seeking mental health help, and she says she thinks they have been successful. On the other hand, Higgins says she thinks there are more people who need help, particularly with anxiety issues. She says there seems to be a trend where more students are coming in who had previously sought treatment earlier in their life.
The additional counselors will help students to be treated in a more timely manner, Higgins says. She also says those students with more significant problems such as suicide issues will hopefully be able to be seen more often.
Because Utt is a case manager, she will be able to follow through with students who are having difficulties in several areas, Higgins says. By being employeed by UCS, the case manager will be able to put all the pieces of treatment for those students together while maintaining confidentiality. She says the center hasn’t had this position in the past so they’re hoping it will turn out to be helpful.
Another major change at UCS is the use of a local psychiatric nurse practitioner to come to UCS once a week, Higgins says. She says this will allow the center to provide more service to those students who need elevated, specialized care. Higgins says the nurse practitioner will be shared by both UCS and the Student Health Center.
Higgins says the center will be able implement a new program based on equine therapy because UCS counselor Beth Miller is certified in equine therapy. She says they will coordinate their efforts with Truman’s equine program. Higgins says Miller will conduct one group therapy this semester in collaboration with an equine specialist.
Higgins says they anticipate that equine therapy will continue to grow. She says in the future she would like to see student-led changes. Higgins says the center tries to provide resources based on what students are telling UCS they would like to see. Additionally, Higgins says she anticipates putting more resources on the website ucs.truman.edu, such as self-directed anxiety or stress reduction resources.
“We like to hear feedback from students,” Higgins says. “If we’re serving the needs of the students and if the students are pleased with the outcome of our services- that’s our goal.”
Higgins says UCS is aware of the number of suicidal students on Truman’s campus and says while this issue was a factor in the decision to hire more staff, it was not the sole factor, nor was the recent student deaths — this decision has been in the works for several months.
Higgins says student deaths devastate the people at UCS as much as they do the whole Truman community. She says one death by suicide is one too many, and UCS does its best to offer services to prevent that. Higgins says UCS sees a number of suicidal students so while those deaths aren’t surprising, they are hurtful and she says they are one of the reasons why it’s so important UCS is able to see more students more often.
Higgins says funding has been an issue for UCS in the past and this affects hiring because the center has to find qualified counselors willing to move to Kirksville or who are already in the area and willing to work for a lower salary than they might outside of the college environment.
“My hope is always that what we’re getting is people who are committed to college student development,” Higgins says.
Lou Ann Gilchrist, vice president for Student Affairs, says in the early spring the University administration takes into consideration statistics and data when considering whether or not to hire staff. She says the department has to justify the need and that the need will continue.
“The data that was presented indicated that it is not likely that the need for counseling services is going to level off or diminish in the years to come,” Gilchrist says.
To establish need and justify the hiring of a new staff member, a department is required to submit a proposal to the University president’s executive staff, according to Gilchrist.
Gilchrist says in terms of hiring the new counselors, she submitted not only UCS utilization statistics but also information about incoming college students and their needs, as well as information showing that other universities are increasing their counseling staff.
Gilchrist says when it comes to hiring new staff, it’s always a question of where the money is coming from.
Dave Rector, vice president for administration, finance and planning, says the process for deciding to hire new staff is a long one. He says it begins in January when the Governor makes funding recommendations to state universities. Rector says the University president then presents the budget to staff in February, which the staff then uses to develop staffing proposals. He says this process lasts until April when the president’s staff reviews the proposals and makes a preliminary budget. Rector says in May the budget is finalized, contingent upon the Governor. Budgets are finalized in June when the state appropriations are finalized. Rector says then the departments who were approved for new staff can begin the hiring process.
Rector says the president’s staff has to prioritize needs since not all staff needs can be met every year. He says this means once a department has been granted a new staff hire, their priority for future requests is lowered.
Rector says the whole process hinges on the fact that there is only a certain amount of new money to allocate and ultimately the president makes the decision of whether or not to hire new staff.
Rector says the data presented to the staff show there was a legitimate need at UCS, and the students showed their support for more staff at UCS. Rector says if students are interested in bringing funding into an area on campus they feel needs more resources, they should contact the head of that department.
This story appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Truman Index.