BY CAROLINE STREETT
Gull Life Editor
Reports of mental health struggles are on the rise worldwide, and at Salisbury University, this rise can be seen firsthand.
In recent years, a number of students have come forward to raise the concern of a need for more counseling services.
Dr. Kathleen Scott, director of the Salisbury University Counseling Center, has confirmed an increase in the need for more counselors at the center.
“The number of students that have come into the counseling center — I’ve been here since 2007 — and every single year, the number of students coming here has increased, and in terms of staffing, around 2002, we had 4.5 full time equivalency … so we’re still, in the past 16 years, at that same number of staff FTE,” Scott said.
The International Association of Counseling Services recommends that the ratio of counselors to students be 1 to 1,000 or 1 to 1,500.
In 2018, Salisbury had a total enrollment of 8,714 students, revealing that SU has about half of the recommended number of full-time counselors needed to suit the students’ growing need for mental health services.
SU’s Student Government Association had a petition last spring to get more staff in the center, and there was also a motion made before the faculty senate to do the same thing.
Senior Ben Lenox has made efforts to better the counseling center at SU since his freshman year.
“Having experience, having tried to use the counseling services my freshman year, I found that it was very difficult to get an appointment, and that when I did get an appointment, the range of services wasn’t exactly what I expected coming into college,” Lenox said.
“I began to work with SGA to sort of figure out a way that we could open up a dialogue with the counseling center, administration and students to not only just discuss the state of mental health on college campuses, but to see what we could do about improving the services that we offer.”
Lenox explained that over the years, this project has “waxed and waned,” and sometimes Lenox and SGA had to put up a bit of a fight with administration, but it was always more about strategic planning and budgeting resources and less about the principle of it all.
Each year, the state Legislature and the Board of Regents allocates a certain number of permanent employee positions to the university, and Lenox believes it is important that SU “spreads those positions equitably.”
Lenox emphasized that this effort has been inherently collaborative, given that the university is allocated a very low number of permanent positions each year.
The students’ efforts resulted in the option of an additional staff member — and SGA was advocating for another counselor — however, Student Affairs made it and assistant director position.
Scott believes that this addition to the staff will help, but she highlights that an assistant director will be more involved in administrative duties rather than the duties of serving the students as a full-time counselor.
The counseling center has yet to hire this additional staff member, for the decision was approved last spring, but the university’s search to fill the position is still ongoing.
“Typically, the division of Student Affairs gets several positions each year, and it’s a matter of priorities, and a lot of departments within Student Affairs are smaller staffs, and everybody’s needs are significant and important to providing services to students,” Scott said.
A large setback in the counseling center’s low level of staff is the difficulty in prioritizing the needs of faculty in various departments. But it comes into question: Shouldn’t students’ mental health be a top priority?
Scott pointed out a previous effort made by students at the University of Maryland, College Park in which students came forward with their concerns on extreme wait times and the need for more counselors. The UMD students were successful in their efforts and received several new positions.
In terms of SU’s counseling situation, Scott encourages students to be vocal about their needs, for if the university sees that the students are advocating for a specific issue, perhaps university officials will be more inclined to address it.
As a means of trying to cope with the unbalanced student-to-counselor ratio, the center has tried to make a transition to more group therapy sessions, as well as moving to every-other-week sessions and a switch to 30-minute consultations instead of an hour.
“I really like group therapy for students because it’s 8-12 students and two counselors, and students talk about whatever is going on in their lives that they want to talk about, and typically there’s some overlap, maybe a couple people have anxiety, and people have family or relationship issues,” Scott said. “But there’s also differences, and you also are learning to communicate better and getting feedback from each other as you’re talking.”
Struggling with one’s mental health can feel like a very lonely place, and Scott wants to reassure students that they are not alone in this battle.
The center also takes part in outreach programs including its annual “Chalk It Up” event in which students can relieve stress through drawing while having a chance to interact with and get to know the counselors in a more comfortable setting.
The center is currently offering an online program called “Kognito at Risk” that teaches students how to recognize signs of distress in their friends and how to refer someone to the counseling center.
Kognito offers both a program for faculty members and a program for students, and Scott believes that this “realistic and engaging” program will help teachers and students to handle situations revolving around mental health.
Over the past four years, Lenox has seen a positive transformation in the services the center provides, but he emphasizes that there is still a need for more counselors.
“In that sense, I think yes, we’re making steps toward progress, but I definitely think that there’s always more work to be done, and I’m a firm believer that the more positions we have available within the counseling center, the more flexible they are going to be able to be,” Lenox said.
When it comes to mental health as a whole, Lenox thinks a big problem in addressing it is society’s tendency to desensitize situations.
“So many people are suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety, and all of these things that plague college campuses,” Lenox said. “I think we are not honest with ourselves when we feel those things.”
Featured picture: SU Counseling Center in Guerrieri Student Union. Marshall Haas photo.