Campus’ state of mental health examined more closely by faculty

Campus' state of mental health examined more closely by faculty

Imran Majid

While the Counseling and Psychological Services at Sacramento State is considered a model collegiate mental health program within the California State University system, some union representatives voiced frustration about the program and a recent employment switch.

The Employment Assistance Program, a free clinical consultation program for faculty and family members, transitioned to an 800-number service in February and Doug Adams, the only employment assistance clinician, moved over to Counseling and Psychological Services as an urgent care counselor.

“(The Employment Assistance Program is) transitioning to a more ‘traditional delivery of care,’” said Sacramento Chapter California Faculty Association President Kevin Wehr. “Pardon my French, but that’s f—–g bulls–t. There’s nothing more traditional about a 1-800 number as compared to having a face-to-face meeting with someone. It’s Machiavellian.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Lori Varlotta said employment assistance is delivering its service in a different way, and added it did not seem appropriate to have a student affairs professional work with faculty and staff.

“Doug Adams has always been part of my staff in Student Affairs,” Varlotta said. “And I need my staff in Student Affairs to work with students.”

Varlotta served as co-chair of the CSU Select Committee on Mental Health in 2009. The committee assessed student mental health needs across the CSU system, compared data with national trends and presented its report to the Board of Trustees in May 2010.

The committee made eight recommendations, including an executive order to describe the mental health services campuses should provide, an individual campus evaluation of staffing and other needs and an integration of counseling services with other campus departments.

Wehr said another recommendation suggested evaluating counselors’ union representation but the idea was shut down quickly.

Executive Order 1053, issued by former CSU Chancellor Charles Reed in December 2010, defines the required basic mental health services at each school, such as counseling and suicide prevention, and how the services should be distributed to students.

But the California Faculty Association heavily criticized the committee’s report, noting significant issues with data collection, budgetary analysis and number of clients seen per day as a definition of counselor productivity.

As a member of the California Faculty Association Counselor’s Committee, Sacramento Field Representative Jason Conwell helped prepare a response that was sent to each trustee member.

He criticized the Mental Health Committee for not speaking with counselors who provided services, and for failing to address the people most affected. He described the members as administrators who looked at budgets and determined the best course of action.

 “Our solution to the problem is hire more counselors,” Conwell said. “We believe very strongly in quality everything. It appears to me and it appeared to the Counselors’ Committee that what they were much more interested in was efficiency.”

The counselor to student ratio at Sac State is approximately 1-to-2,500 students, said Counseling and Psychological Services Clinical Director Karen Durst.

The International Association of Counseling Services, an accrediting organization for university and college counseling services, recommends a ratio of 1-to-1,500 but Sac State remains accredited.

Durst became the clinical director for Counseling and Psychological Services in 2010 and integrated operations with Student Health Services to expand service delivery programs and hire a multidisciplinary staff.

“There have been no staffing cuts to the department,” Durst said. “The integration of (Counseling and Psychological Services) with Student Health has allowed for better access to mental health services, more efficient service delivery and expanded program offerings.”

Both Wehr and Conwell also said they are disappointed in the lack of tenure and tenure-track counselors. Tenure allows for more job security and allows employees to freely speak their minds, Wehr said.     

Conwell, who has been a field representative for six years, said he knew every counselor at Sac State in 2008 and at least five were tenured or tenure-track. All of those counselors eventually left the program and, instead of filling the vacant tenured positions, most of the counselors today are conditional.

Based on personal conversations with these counselors, Conwell said most of them left because of the direction of counseling services. At least one retired, but all of them were fairly young, he said.

Adams, who became the employment assistance clinician in 2006, provides urgent psychological care to student walk-ins and is the only tenured counselor in Counseling and Psychological Services. He was not available for comment.

Before Adams, Counseling and Psychological Services did not have a tenured counselor.

Durst said the student utilization rate for counseling services has increased, from less than 3 percent in 2008 to 6 percent in 2011.

“Quality of care is our primary concern,” Varlotta said. “It always has been and continues to be. We’re very proud of the quality of care that we offer.”   

Varlotta said the school has been recognized through awards and grants for the quality of its services.

The Active Minds Peer Health Educators recently received a five-star designation from the National Active Minds Organization for educating the campus community about mental health and emotional wellness issues.

Sac State also received a national grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration because of its “acclaimed model of holistic care,” Varlotta said.

“Grants often go to successful programs to keep successful programs running,” Varlotta said. “The fact that we were rewarded these competitive grants bodes well for our program.”

Even with all the accolades, Wehr said he feels the program falls short of what it should be, with the focus taken away from caring for the individual.

“It appears that they’re trying to make it more of an assembly line,” Conwell said. “They want to get students in, then get them out. What I’d like for them to be doing is if a kid has a problem, I’d like to see them treated.”

Wehr also said, after recent incidents of violent attacks in schools, the employment assistance switch is a reflection of the reduction of care provided for faculty that is similar to the reduction of care provided for students.

“Public safety is not about having more cops around or having emergency phone locations,” Wehr said. “It’s also about preventive, rather than reactive. And that’s what they’re not doing.”