CSU faculty urge action on large mental health counselor ratio

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Faculty members in the California State University system are alleging that high student-to-mental health counselor ratios on campuses is harming some of the system's neediest students. 

The California Faculty Association points to data they gathered that suggests all but three of the 23 campuses have ratios significantly higher than what’s recommended by experts.

“It is a growing crisis and a risky underinvestment,” said Jeff Andreas Tan, clinical psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services, CSU San Bernardino.

The workload for his ten counselors, he said, is now about 1,800 students per counselor, he said, and that means that the large proportion of Latino, black, and other non-white students who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and other issues are likely receiving less service than they need.

The International Association of Counseling Services, the Virginia-based group that accredits higher education counseling services, recommends campuses have a ratio of one mental health counselor for every 1,500 students in order to provide adequate follow up services and so that students don’t have to wait too long for services.

“Last semester the waiting list got to be as many as 200 waiting to receive services,” said San Jose State student mental health counselor Richard Paul Francisco. “Some of the students will wait for about a month until we get them in for a one on one session.”

But those students who are in urgent need of counseling can get it right away.

The student population at his and other campuses, he said, is not the stereotypical one of generations ago that came to campus to devote themselves fully to their studies and left the issues of home behind.

He recalls Vietnamese-American students he’s counseled who talk about the difficulty of balancing their studies with their parents’ expectations.

“They expect the student to contribute to the household income through work, they expect the students to do things like babysitting, run errands, look after the elderly, so students are stressed to the max here,” he said.

California Faculty Association said that annual salaries for temporary mental health counselors is about $53,000 and about $77,000 for tenured counselors, and that’s leading many to leave their Cal State jobs to work in the private sector or at the better paid University of California.

Francisco and other faculty are set to talk about the effects of these ratios on students of color at an equity conference scheduled this weekend in Los Angeles. They’re bringing up the issue now because contract talks between the CFA and Cal State are stalled over the union’s request for a 5 percent salary increase.

The CSU chancellor’s office said it could not confirm the accuracy of the CFA’s ratios. A spokeswoman said the count appears to miss some counselors.

Cal State more students are starting their college careers with mental health issues and a five year-old mental health initiative is helping make sure the campus gets as many resources to them as possible.

“The initiative has made a significant contribution to the improvement of mental health on our campuses and beyond,” said CSU Assistant Director of Student Health and Wellness Programs Ana Aguayo-Bryant in an email. “It’s also helping to take away the shame and stigma associated with mental illness, creating a supportive campus environment focused on academic and personal wellness.”

Through the initiative, Cal State said, more than 17,000 students, faculty, staff, and community members have received mental health training.

Five years ago, the Proposition 63 ballot initiative allocated about $7 million for mental health services at CSU.

The initiative includes the Red Folder program that prompts Cal State students and staff identify a student in a mental health crisis and seek help.

The faculty association responded that training students and staff is no replacement for having tenured, full time mental health professionals on campus to make sure students are able to talk one on one with a counselor more than once a month.

The CFA’s data showed that the CSU Los Angeles and Fresno State have counselor to student ratios over 6,000 to one.

A CSULA spokesman could not confirm that ratio but said there are seven counselors and one psychiatrists working on the 22,856 student campus. And the campus is moving to add two more counselors.

CSULA has its own mental health initiative that, like the CSU program, increases resources such as peer counselors (currently 50, according to the campus) as well as the introduction of Remy, the campus therapy dog that helps “provide comfort, companionship, and a soothing presence.”