UCS policy post incites heavy student backlash

The University Counseling Services replaced their Limitations to Services guidelines with a Scope of Services policy after student response online.

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, UCS created a Facebook post to share updates it had made to the Limitations to Services policy. The post was shared nearly 100 times across social media and spurred current and former students to share their opinions about UCS as well as Truman State University.

One such response was a blog post from former student Lawrence Hu that received close to 3,000 shares and more than 14,000 views. The post included his letter to Truman as well as anecdotes from his personal experience on campus.

University President Sue Thomas said while she feels the blog post is significant, it is important individuals not draw conclusions based off of one person.

“I would hope that no student would have the perceived experience that that student did,” Thomas said. “I won’t deny his perceived experience; that’s what he felt like he experienced on this campus, that’s what he believes he felt like. I don’t know that one student’s experience would be generalized to the University as a whole because I would not generalize any one student’s experience to the University as a whole. And so, his experience and his perception of his experience are his. I respect and accept that.”

Janna Stoskopf, vice president for student affairs, wrote in a statement to The Index that she feels the mission of the University is to help people and she never wants a student to suffer.

“I feel badly that the author did not have a better experience during his time here,” Stoskopf wrote. “It is always my hope that students who choose to attend Truman would find it to be a supportive environment that provides students the intellectual challenges necessary to learn and grow. As a liberal arts institution, our mission is to help people engage in critical thinking and exercise their intellectual curiosity. I really appreciate those who have come forward to ask questions and gather factual information about what the university is doing to address student mental health. This can be an emotionally charged and sensitive topic, which makes it even more crucial for members of our community to have accurate information. We continue working to identify ways we can be more transparent about the JED strategic plan.”

Following the blog post and other social media posts, UCS replaced the Limitations to Services page on their website with a new policy titled Scope of Services. UCS has had the Limitations to Services guidelines for about two years. The recent updates to these guidelines include a paragraph encouraging those experiencing mental health difficulties who might need outside help to still visit and consult with UCS.

Stoskopf said she talked to Student Government and took note of social media responses. She said the University is now working to correct any misconceptions and provide the most current and accurate information to students.

Brenda Higgins, director of University Counseling Services, said the addition of the paragraph to the Limitations to Services guidelines was prompted by a phone call from a staff member at the University who was unsure if a student could be helped by UCS. Higgins said the limitations seemed to only list what is beyond the ability of UCS without providing those in need an indication of what they could help with. She said it appeared to some students that UCS would not and could not serve them in some way, which is the opposite of the goal of the guidelines.

Higgins said the care UCS can provide is hard to define because mental health is an individualized issue, so broad guidelines can easily create confusion. She said while a student might meet one aspect of what would be considered outside the scope of services, they can still receive care from UCS if they are goal-directed in meeting another mental health need. One of the major guidelines, Higgins said, is if a student has suicidal ideation but is able to cooperatively work with a counselor to create a safety plan, then they will continue treatment.

Higgins said the Limitations to Services guidelines were intended to be a transparent explanation of the services UCS could provide.

“The intention was to make it clearer to students that most of the students can be seen at the counseling center,” Higgins said. “What happened was it just drew attention to the limitations to services in general, which looks like a long list.”

Stoskopf said the messaging of the update to the Limitations to Services guidelines was not done in the most effective way. She said none of the limitations were changed recently.

“The part that was problematic is that — it wasn’t from my standpoint — is that we didn’t clarify what the update was that we were making,” Stoskopf said. “And in reality, the update we made was in one of the opening paragraphs where we were trying to tell students that if someone is struggling with mental health issues, it is more than likely we’ll be able to assist.”

Higgins said UCS and the University try to clearly communicate to students and their families — particularly prospective students — that they should retain the services of mental health providers if their condition is serious, complex or unstable. The University recently hired a psychiatric nurse practitioner who is able to manage more complex psychiatric medication regimens and will soon hire a psychologist to handle more specialized services.

Higgins said UCS tries to respond to student needs and concerns, but how that is expressed might be unclear.

“We’re always trying to respond to students, but sometimes that bites us because it looks like if people aren’t asking questions and they’re making quick assumptions, it may look — the perception may not be what the intent was at all,” Higgins said. “And we take some responsibility for that because perhaps we should have been more cautious in trying to look at how it might be perceived, but instead we’re so into the, ‘This is what we’re trying to do to improve things,’ that we aren’t always seeing how it might be perceived by someone else, and that’s on us.”

Higgins said she intends on being more open and clear about changes happening on campus in regards to mental health. Some of these changes are the new hires in UCS, the number of JED initiatives and a process designed to make a change in Truman’s culture.

Higgins said she has personally responded to the initial Facebook post regarding the change in the Limitations to Services guidelines inviting students to talk to her, which she said is the most productive way to address concerns.

“I want to do what is going to be best for students,” Higgins said. “I don’t want to do something that’s going to create more unrest and cause students who might need services not to come.”

Stoskopf said the new webpage on the UCS website is more clear and comprehensive in providing information on what UCS can help with and what it might refer students elsewhere for. Stoskopf said she thinks the update was well-intentioned because the University was trying to be transparent, however, the focus of attention was not well-directed.

“When you only focus on what you can’t do, it’s very easy for there to be a negative reaction to that, and that’s completely understandable,” Stoskopf said.

Stoskopf said a Scope of Services policy is common among universities because they have a responsibility to establish to students the kind of treatments that need to be referred out to other institutions. She said less than two percent of people that used UCS last year had to be referred out.

Stoskopf said there are more changes to come, and active student engagement is important in those discussions. While students are already serving on the JED committee and each of the subcommittees, Stoskopf said if students are interested in being part of the conversation, the University will find a place for them participate. She said she would also like to provide regular updates to the Truman community.

Senior Isaac Speed said he created a Facebook group as a space for students to discuss any issues regarding mental health at Truman.  The group has since gained more than 400 members.

“Right now we’re working on figuring out what the main issues are and what we can do to address those,” Speed said. “Whether it be something led by students, or policy or rebudgeting by Truman, or talking to the state legislature.”

Speed said one of the most important factors he would like to see change is the Truman culture and the “Typical Truman Student.” He said there are no specific plans right now, and the group is still working to determine what they want to do, but in general they would like to see students make use of available resources and have more provided.

Speed said he and the other students in the group want to work with the University, not against it.

Speed said he and some other students met with Thomas last week and plan to meet with more University officials in the future. He said he learned more about what mental health initiatives Truman is currently working on.

When The Index requested a statement from the Board of Governors regarding the student feedback, chair Cheryl Cozette responded via email.

The Board of Governors, along with the administration, faculty, and staff of Truman State University, are committed to ensuring that our students receive quality mental health services,” Cozette wrote. “We regret that the Facebook post of the Scope of Services was misunderstood. We are grateful for the high level of concern demonstrated by the Truman community for the well-being of our students. Working together, we will help each student access services needed for good mental health.”