Counseling center lacking counselors

Illustration by Devin Phillips

The increase in suicides and other mental health issues has opened the eyes of many Americans to the importance of mental health awareness and intervention. However, the increase in awareness and demand has left many counseling and therapy centers struggling to keep up.

The Georgia State Counseling and Testing Center is no exception to this struggle.

The university’s student-to-counselor ratio is significantly lower than other major universities in Georgia. For comparison, the University of Georgia has 38,246 students enrolled with 15 full-time counselors and five part-time; Georgia Tech has 29,370 students with 14 full-time counselors and one part-time.

Yet, Georgia State has 52,814 students, more than both other schools, and only nine full-time counselors between the Atlanta and Perimeter campuses. Five are based in Atlanta and four are spread between the five separate Perimeter campuses.

This poses a serious concern. At the Georgia State counseling center, your first session is typically a walk-in for an initial consultation. During this session, a counselor will evaluate the “clinical urgency” of your need and schedule an appointment for the service that you desire.

Georgia State’s Counseling and Testing Center provides a number of services which are entirely “free” for students since these programs are funded by student fees.
Students have access to individual counseling sessions, group counseling sessions, couples counseling and a list of other services. These services, according to students, are important to them.

Out of the 512 students who took the counseling satisfaction survey in the 2017-2018 school year, 97 percent said that they were satisfied with the care they received and 91 percent said they learned information during their sessions that improved their mental health and positively affected their ability to meet their academic goals.

For arguably the most important service, a personal session with a counselor, there is an extremely long waitlist. After a consultation, students can have appointments with a counselor scheduled anywhere from five to 40 business days in the future. Wait times vary, again, based on “clinical urgency.”

If a student is determined to be in urgent need of a session with a counselor, they could still wait up to a week to be seen. Those determined to be of lesser need can wait up to five months.

To further complicate things, demand for counseling services is increasing; the counseling center reported an average of 43 new students per week in the 2017-18 year. There has also been an increase of 183% in student demand for services between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 school years, according to the center.

Currently, there are around 200 Georgia State students who have had a consultation and are waiting to be seen in a one-on-one session — some of whom will not be seen for 40 or more business days.

The center’s services are free to all students, but because of the lengthy wait times for one-on-one sessions, counseling services will offer referrals to outside counselors. This can subject students who are awaiting help to potentially expensive outside alternatives.

“Of the students who have been assessed by a counselor about 17-20% are given off campus referrals. The CTC doesn’t track how many students actually follow through on the referrals given,” Dr. Jill Lee-Barber, the senior director of Psychological and Health Services, said.

“Students are referred to a variety of community resources, based on their clinical and financial need and their location. Students are provided with at least 3 referrals that they can access. The cost ranges from free to $50.00 per session. Students can always return to the CTC if they need more assistance with referrals,” Dr. Lee-Barber said.

The counseling center isn’t the only Georgia State service having to send students off campus to pay for services. The health clinic — also under Psychological and Health Services — is without a digital X-ray, meaning that students in need of imaging must go to Grady and pay for X-rays.

In light of recent events with what GSUPD has labeled an attempted suicide at Piedmont North, as well as the extreme wait times for personal sessions, why hasn’t the university prioritized expanding the counseling center?

It’s not because they don’t have the money. Neither the counseling center or the student health clinic are running a deficit — both are funded by Psychological and Health Services. And, as of June 30, 2018 there was $5.5 million in reserve for psychological and health services with approximately $3.4 million in student fees going to the program each year.

“Full-time counselors salaries at GSU average between 47-53K,” according to Dr. Lee-Barber.

It would cost the university approximately $500,000 per year to hire 10 new counselors. However, if the university did hire 10 new counselors, that would only bring their total to 19 full-time counselors for all 52,814 Georgia State students.

However, in order to use any of the funds in reserve, there must be a recommendation by the vice president of student affairs and the university must approve that recommendation then pass a budget amendment.