Truman State University Counseling Services is struggling with a staffing deficit at a time when the number of students seeking treatment has remained steady.
Earlier this semester, the lack of counselors and office staff required UCS to put students on a waitlist. Joe Hamilton, assistant director of UCS, said students were required to wait upwards of two to three weeks until they were contacted to schedule an appointment.
“It’s not just that we don’t have space, but we don’t have anyone to contact them,” Hamilton said. “It’s just a perfect storm.”
At the beginning of the semester, the former UCS secretary, Ann Weidner, retired after having been with the counseling center since its establishment in 1992. Because of this departure, many auxiliary workers have been brought in to fill the secretary position whenever possible.
“She worked here for many, many, many years and took care of all of us as well as the students,” Brenda Higgins, associate vice president for Student Health and Wellness, said.
The secretary position was recently filled, adding a much needed member to the UCS administrative team, however, many counselor positions remain open.
Higgins explained that two counselors resigned over the summer, one recently returned from maternity leave, and another is only working half days because of access to childcare during the pandemic.
“This is the smallest staff we’ve ever had in our history,” Hamilton said. “Right now [we have] about three and a half altogether and that’s even smaller than when we started in 1992.”
Hamilton said, although UCS isn’t any busier than it usually is, he’s been constantly busy with sessions, calling people back or responding to inquiries.
“I’m really just working all the time,” Hamilton said.
Although the search for more counselors has started, UCS has found little success in hiring. One of the factors that make it hard to attract dedicated counselors is pay. Hamilton said pay is disclosed to the applicant after they have been deemed qualified for the position and this is the reason many end up dropping out. Higgins said both the counselors that left during the summer took better paying positions elsewhere. Hamilton said UCS hasn’t stayed competitive with other institutions in terms of compensation.
This understaffing not only affects the care that UCS is able to provide, but also those that utilize it. Senior Lydia Helfrich explained how frustrating waiting so long for a counseling appointment can be.
“My issue is by the time I get in, I normally feel like either I’ve forgotten why I called or I’ve just decided to figure it out myself,” Helfrich said. “I feel like once I actually finally get there, it doesn’t help as much because I have such a long wait period.”
Junior Alexis Morkisz had some of the same concerns as Helfrich.
After calling and expressing interest in an appointment, Morkisz waited a little more than a week before receiving a call to schedule. She was then required to wait approximately one more week for her scheduled session.
“The day before I wrote a list of stuff that I wanted to talk about,” Morkisz said. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I had originally called for. I want to make sure that I still cover it and remember all the details of what had happened.’”
UCS is taking many steps to mitigate the pressure currently put on the organization. Higgins explained that there are three part-time counselors that are stepping in when necessary.
UCS also offered an educational group for those on the waiting list and unable to immediately access individual sessions. The group focuses on coping skills for depression and anxiety.
“I feel terrible that people are waiting so long to get in, but, you know, we just don’t have the staff to keep up with the demand,” Hamilton said.