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Need for mental health services on campus grows but resources remain tight

Despite a growing need for mental health services in the community, the director of the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois says the resources remain underfunded and understaffed.

“I think mental health services everywhere are underfunded,” said Center director Carla McCowan. “How many staff members do you need before you meet demands? What’s that sweet spot? Nobody knows that, but we’re not there on our campus yet.”

The University offers numerous services for mental health and counseling, but many students have complained that they’re ineffective and inaccessible, and with the rise of COVID-19 the Counseling Center has been left with not enough licensed counselors to match the needs of the students on campus. 

McCowan hopes to hire more counselors to help meet the demand from students. According to the International Accreditation of Counseling Services, the nationally accepted ratio of students to counselors is 1,000-1,500:1, excluding trainees and interns, in order to best meet needs.

To meet the needs of the 52,331 students at the University, the Counseling Center would need at least 34-52 licensed counselors, and McCowan agrees that “…we really need to be closer to that 1,000:1.” 

However, the Center only has 32 licensed clinical counselors, a 1,635:1 ratio.

“We’re increasing in terms of our embedded counselors. We increase there, we still increase the number of available counselors on campus.” 

Embedded counselors are counselors that work directly with the various colleges, such as Engineering,  Liberal Arts and Sciences,  to provide students with resources that are specially catered to their needs. This also allows academic advisors to refer students directly to specific counselors rather than the Counseling Center as a whole, making it more likely that the student will seek out counseling.

Overall, the Counseling Center offers numerous resources to students, including therapy and referrals for Disability Resources and Educational Services accommodations.

However, many students attempting to use these services have had mixed reviews about their experiences. The biggest issue seems to be with scheduling an appointment to see a counselor. Same-day appointments are difficult to get unless you call early in the morning, and the Counseling Center has been experiencing a staff shortage not helped by COVID.

McCowan said she wished that students would “just call” before jumping to conclusions based on social media testimonies. If there is not an appointment available when a student calls. The Center will attempt to get the student  in touch with a counselor for an immediate phone session if needed.

According to a story reported earlier this year by CU-CitizenAccess, many students took to social media to voice their complaints. One such case was a student who posted on the UIUC subreddit that the Counseling Center had turned her away in the middle of a mental health crisis because she had already visited them six months ago. 

This  led to many other students sharing their experiences as well. Some of them talk about being suicidal and being told to look elsewhere, while another mentions being told to “just hold on until next semester” after their mother died.

Amongst all of the complaints, however, were a few comments of praise for the Center and its staff. Some called them “friendly,” but wished that the Center would hire more staff and make its services more accessible, while others voiced hope that the University would provide more resources in the future. 

With this increase in demand for counseling services, funding is more important than ever. According to McCowan, almost all of the Counseling Center’s funding comes directly from student fees, $44 per student per semester totaling about $3.9 million consistently each year. However, this is not enough to hire the staff needed and the Center hopes to increase this amount in the next year.

With the rise of COVID, it was expected that students would need counseling services more than ever; however, 13,831 total individual clinical appointments in 2018-2019 decreased to 12,308 in 2019-2020.

But McCowan said the main reason these numbers are down is that many students were home during the Spring and Fall 2020 semesters, and home for a lot of students is outside of the state of Illinois.

“COVID was really challenging for us because students were not here, students were in California, students were in China, and frankly we had some interstate jurisdiction issues with our licensing,” McCowan explains. “Theoretically, we can’t really see a student who’s not in the state of Illinois.”

However, COVID brought about new outreach options for reaching students, leading to an increase in total number of people reached, up from 34,258 to 36,182. This included new online resources for those students out of state, the biggest of which is an app called “My SSP” (student support program), which allows students to connect with a counselor and schedule online appointments, even if they reside outside the state of Illinois. 

Despite all of the negative criticisms by students who were unable to get an appointment, the majority of students who did get appointments reported positive experiences. According to an annual survey performed by the Counseling Center, “over 95% of clients reported that they called only one or two times before scheduling their initial appointment” in Spring 2021, and “over 94% felt that counseling had helped improve their well-being.”

College students have some of the highest rates of mental illness of any age group, about 44% according to the Mayo Clinic Health System. Recently, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a public health advisory stating that “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable,” and that “depressive and anxiety symptoms have doubled during the pandemic,” among other growing concerns with the rise of COVID-19. 

The Counseling Center takes all student feedback to heart and is constantly trying to improve in order to meet their needs. “We’re not perfect, we know that. We’re always trying to get better.” McCowan said. 

The Counseling Center is located in the Turner Student Services Building at 610 E. John St. in Champaign. Students can reach the Center by calling (217) 333-3704 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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CU-CitizenAccess is an online newsroom devoted to community and watchdog reporting by journalism students at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

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