MU Counseling Center seeks to add staff

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 | 7:41 p.m. CDT; updated 8:54 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 30, 2008

Students currently will not have to wait more than a week and a half after their initial assessment to begin counseling sessions at MU's Counseling Center. An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated waiting time students might face to begin counseling.

COLUMBIA — When it comes to the number of professional counselors available on campus for students, MU's Counseling Center falls far short, according to one national standard, with about half the number of counselors it needs.

The International Association of Counseling Services recommends that universities have one full-time professional staff member for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. But with a staff of 11 at the Counseling Center and an enrollment hovering around 29,700, the ratio for MU is about one psychologist for every 2,700 students.

By the numbers (in fiscal year 2008)

Number of appointments: 3,082

Number of group therapy hours: 764

Number of in-person crisis assessments: 182

Number of clients seen in therapy: 626

Approximate number of participants in programming and outreach events: 8,000


Staff Numbers

Professional staff: 10.5 full-time equivalent

Graduate students: 1.5 full-time equivalent

Full-time psychology interns: 4

Part-time practicum (doctoral) students: 8

David Wallace, who was hired as director of the MU Counseling Center in July, said his long-term goal is to move MU's ratio closer to the recommended ratio.

"As you're able to get closer to that range, you have the opportunity to be much more of a resource to students," Wallace said. His goal is to be able "to serve the whole student population, not just those who come through our doors."

The Counseling Center has vacancies for a psychologist and an assistant clinical director. Wallace said he will begin advertising for the positions over the next few weeks and hopes to have them filled by summer.

To fund the positions, Wallace said he is working with the university to increase funding. He is also requesting a 44-cent per semester increase in student fees, which currently make up about 25 percent of the $1.2 million budget for the Counseling Center.

Because of the high counseling staff-to-student ratio, the staff as a whole is consistently busy, said Pamela Darby-Mullins, a licensed psychologist who works there.

"We feel pretty stretched to the limit," she said.

Staff members not only see clients in individual and group therapy sessions, but also rotate in crisis intervention. Someone seeking help for a crisis could have experienced a traumatic event or could be feeling depressed, anxious or suicidal, Darby-Mullins said.

One of the consequences of a smaller staff is that some students may end up on a waiting list before they can be seen. Darby-Mullins said that the center usually has to start a waiting list about two-thirds of the way through a semester.

"Students may have to wait a while (to get an appointment), or we give referral options," Darby-Mullins said. "That's something we'd love to see go away."

Darby-Mullins said that with more staff, the center could cater to a broader section of the student population by offering more individual and group therapy services. The center could also focus more of its attention on campus outreach and prevention efforts, she said.

"If we could present on stress management to a group of freshmen and give them management skills early on, they may not need to come in to the Counseling Center later on," she said.

Wallace, who received his master's and doctoral degrees from MU, said he has seen student needs change over time. When he started counseling, students had mostly developmental needs, meaning they required help adjusting to college life or transitioning into adulthood. But over the past few years, he said, he has seen an increase in crisis counseling as more serious mental health issues become more prominent.

"These needs require more time and more energy," Wallace said. "The more staff we have, the more support we have to take care of challenges."

These more serious needs have hit home for some MU students.

"I see a huge need for more licensed psychologists on campus," said Amy Williams, an MU graduate student and president of the MU chapter of Active Minds.  "Having counseling services readily available to all students is essential to improving the mental health of Mizzou."

Active Minds is a student-run organization with chapters at more than 100 campuses nationwide that advocates for mental health awareness and education. Williams said the Counseling Center acts as a resource for the group and often provides on-site counselors for many of its events.

Williams said it's obvious that the Counseling Center staff is spread thin. Currently, actual waiting time to begin counseling is no more than a week and a half.

Wallace said there is a staff member on duty every day of the week for students who are having emergency crisis situations.

Nearly a dozen interns and doctoral students train at the center and help with counseling, Wallace said, but "you can't operate your center based on trainees." There are also seven professionals available at the MU Student Health Center for mental health needs.

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