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Understaffed Counseling Center Scrambles to Meet Students’ Needs

As the national average for suicide and depression among college students continues to rise, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, Concordia’s understaffed Counseling Center is struggling to help students in need.

The Counseling Center, located on the first floor of Academy. Photo by Reilly Myklebust.
The Counseling Center, located on the first floor of Academy. Photo by Reilly Myklebust.

The Counseling Center has four full-time staff members, and only two are licensed counselors. For a school of nearly 2,500 undergraduates, the staff is pushing their limits as they try to accommodate every student seeking help, said Monica Kersting, director of the Counseling Center and Disability Services.

“We had a psychologist of 13 years leave to work at a different position,” Kersting said.

The Counseling Center has been left with one counselor since August. Kersting has offered five different candidates a position on staff, but all offers have been turned down because of the salary Concordia is able to offer for them.

“Because of the amount of jobs available to candidates, the candidates are able to demand higher salaries and benefit packages that Concordia simply cannot offer,” Kersting said.

The time of year also plays a part in why the Counseling Center has yet to hire a new counselor.

“February or March is when we usually interview, as there is a bigger pool of candidates to draw from,” Kersting explained.

It isn’t until after the New Year that masters or doctoral students begin searching for work.

While the Counseling Center continues to search for a new staff member, students are beginning to feel the effects of a short-staffed counseling source.

Sophomore Brodie Running went into the Counseling Center seeking help for a personal issue. Upon his arrival, he was told that he could not be seen that day and would have to schedule a meeting at a later date.

“They told me it was going to be at least two weeks before I could be seen,” Running said. “I just decided to deal with the problem on my own rather than schedule an appointment.”

Due to lack of staff, Kersting explained that the center’s scheduling works similarly to that of a hospital.

“We are kind of like an emergency room,” Kersting said. “We take the most critical students first and then work our way down to the least critical.”

Students who use the Counseling Center are first screened to see if their mental state constitutes them as critical or not, according to Kersting. A critical student is one whose situation ranges from high-stress traumatic events to suicidal thoughts.

“Because we take the most critical students first, some other students may have to wait to be seen,” Kersting said.

A critical student, who asked to remain anonymous, affirmed the Counseling Center’s promptness with responding to the needs of critical students.

“Nearly every time I need someone in the office, they are able to see me right away,” the student said.

Kersting emphasized that the times available for urgent situations have remained the same. These allotted time slots throughout the day accommodate any student with an emergency situation.

“I leave an appointment feeling refocused and with a better feeling about my situation,” the student said.

However, even critical students are sometimes shuffled aside amid the numerous appointments made; the anonymous student described a time when a counselor forgot about his appointment.

“I waited half an hour for my appointment,” the student said. “By the time a counselor saw me, they had to attend to another appointment that was already late.”

For undergraduates, school is a student’s full time job. If a student has a problem they are unable to work through, it could negatively affect their schoolwork and eventually trickle down into their social and personal lives, according to Mikal Kenfield, director of residence life.

Other departments have stepped up their involvement with students due to the lack of resources available from the Counseling Center, Kenfield said.

Kenfield explained the system of early alerts and how important they are to students.

Professors send out early alerts, an email that notifies Student Affairs when a student is falling behind in class, Kenfield explained. Once these alerts have arrived in the Student Affairs office, the Care Team committee sends the information to the correct department to handle the situation.

The alerts go different places including the Kjos Health Center, Residence Life and the Counseling Center. The alert is dependent upon the student’s needs at the moment it is sent out, Kenfield explained.

“Depending on the nature of the alert, they are communicated to the appropriate office,” Kenfield said.

Residence Life staff has opened their doors to students who may have a minor problem that needs to be talked through, which helps the Counseling Center focus on critical students, Kenfield said.

Sue Oatey, vice president and dean of student affairs, said that Student Affairs has also stepped up to help the Counseling Center by hiring a part-time staff member to help alleviate some of the Counseling Center’s workload.

“We brought in a part-time person to work in disability services, which allows Kersting to allocate more of her time to counseling,” Oatey said.

Despite the assistance from other departments, Kersting said they could only help so much.

“Other departments are stepping up, but there are professional situations that need to be dealt with by a professional from the Counseling Center,” Kersting said.

With the students’ needs in mind, the Counseling Center continues their quest for another counselor.

“It doesn’t make us feel good to have students waiting, but they can be assured that we are searching hard for a new counselor,” Kersting said.

This article was submitted by Matthew Engum, contributing writer.

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