Counseling Center meets needs with time

James Vaughn

­Students who visited USI’s Cou­­­nseling Center Oct. 10 received a little white card listing the day, month, date and time of their appointment – 13 days away.

Counseling Director Thomas Longwell said wait time varies from week to week.

“It has gone up to three weeks at one point this academic term,” Longwell said. “But I always like to give the caveat that even though we have some wait time, if a student is in crisis, if a student cannot wait to be seen, we get them in that same day.”

Counselors do not define an emergency; they leave it up to the individual, he said.

“We set the bar pretty low there. We basically ask them: ‘Are you OK? Is this an emergency? Is this life-threatening at all?’” Longwell said. “If they answer ‘yes,’ or even if they answer ‘no’ and they appear like they’re just not doing well, we’ll say, ‘OK, let’s find a counselor to speak with you.’”

Ideally, students who do not have immediate needs would be seen the same week, he said. Three weeks can make the difference between a successful semester and a not-so-successful semester.

Longwell blamed the problem on the university’s current budgetary system.

He proposed two new positions – an assistant director and an additional counselor. One of the positions became a top priority among a student affairs focus group, but both were rejected by the Provost’s Office, he said.

“While I think we’re valued and we’re a priority, I just don’t think there is any money for new positions,” Longwell said.

Provost Ron Rochon was unable to be reached for comment.

If a student’s needs cannot be met within a semester, the counselors begin to look at other community resources.

“We try to work with them (students) in a quick but meaningful manner,” Longwell said.

The Counseling Center has implemented group therapy sessions to help with client caseloads.

Amy Cavanaugh, former staff psychologist responsible for the group therapy sessions, accepted a position elsewhere, leaving the Counseling Center with  Longwell, two therapists and a part-time counselor.

The vacancy was submitted to Human Resources and phone interviews will begin this week.

But, students are waiting about the same amount of time they were when Cavanaugh was here, Longwell said.

“We know that students need us,” he said. “But everything takes time. I think we’re doing a good job in that we’re down a full counselor and we’re still meeting those needs. I still want to see that wait-time shorter, but the fact that we’ve been able to maintain that with one less person is a feat.”

The Office of Disability Resources was transitioned into its own department in University Division in July.

“Having two really important services combined under one was a major drain on our resources and our space,” Longwell said. “Now that that has been separated, that’s going to allow that service to grow and mature and hopefully allow our Counseling Center to further grow as well.”

He said the Center was much busier when disability services shared the office because students often qualified for extra time on exams, and the office was responsible for administering those tests.

“We had a steady stream in and out of the door,” Longwell said. “That did not make for the calm, serene environment that we want to create.”

The Counseling Center is still hoping to obtain accreditation, but it’s a long-term goal, he said.

Based on universities who participated in the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) survey, the national average staff size for counseling centers at four-year public universities with 10,000 to 15,000 students was 6.68 in 2011.

Accreditation standards recommend a counseling center have one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. Currently, the counselor-to-student ratio at USI is one counselor for every 2,914 students.