A Look Inside the Counseling, Health and Wellness Center

Cady Sharp Kuzmich, Editor-in-Chief

The Counseling, Health and Wellness Center on campus is an invaluable resource for students at SUNY Oneonta, yet it has its limitations.

There are 5,820 undergraduate students at SUNY Oneonta and fewer than 6 full time counselors working at the Counseling, Health and Wellness Center. These numbers may seem disproportionate but it’s actually close to the standard. SUNY Oneonta’s Vice President of Finance and Administration, Todd Foreman, explains, “The benchmark that we use to determine staffing levels comes from the International Association of Counseling Services, Inc. That organization recommends a ratio of one counselor for every one thousand students. We are currently at 1:1,090.”

Our counseling center may be operating nearly within the guidelines proposed by the International Association of Counseling Services, Inc., however its services have other substantial shortcomings. While there is no cap on crisis appointments, students are limited to eight to 10 counseling sessions during their four years at SUNY Oneonta.

It takes time and courage to build a relationship with a counselor or therapist. Breaking off that relationship by limiting sessions might mean the end of all counseling for some students. The thought of establishing a new relationship with another counselor and retelling their whole story to a new person may be so daunting that it keeps students from seeking the help they need.

A SUNY Oneonta senior who wishes to remain unnamed shared her experience with the counseling center, saying, “Having to establish a relationship with a counselor or therapist you like is something that takes effort and time and it is very frustrating when you already have a relationship with one and are forced to terminate it.”

Another SUNY Oneonta senior who wishes to remain anonymous used up all her counseling sessions and says she wishes the counseling center had “one or two counselors for long term treatment.”

Dr. Melissa Fallon-Korb, Director of SUNY Oneonta’s Counseling, Health and Wellness Center, explains the reasons behind these limitations.

Dr. Fallon-Korb says that she and the university sympathize with students who need long-term counseling, however, she argues that unlimited counseling services would naturally lead to higher fees for all students. With tuition and fees relatively low compared to private universities in some cases, she argues SUNY Oneonta lacks the financial resources to provide the kind of counseling services offered by private institutions such as neighboring Hartwick College.

What Actually Funds the Health, Counseling and Wellness Center?

Liz Morley, RN, Director of Hartwick’s Health Center, confirmed that Hartwick offers unlimited individual and group counseling at no charge to students. Hartwick’s Counseling Center is funded by a “wellness fee,” $160 per semester, not by tuition, according to the Hartwick Admissions Office. Dr. Sheila Paul, the office administrator at Hartwick’s Counseling Center verified that the wellness fee funds the counseling center.

SUNY Oneonta’s Counseling Center, like Hartwick’s, is funded by a $157 per semester health fee, not by tuition. SUNY Oneonta’s health fee is just three dollars shy of Hartwick’s fee, however the contrast in counseling services offered is stark.

“Tuition dollars do not support counseling services,” said Foreman. He explained, “The funding for counseling services is generated by the Health Fee that all students pay. Our fee for this year was $314 [$157 per semester] and increases are typically limited by SUNY to two percent per year unless we can demonstrate an extraordinary situation.”

Dr. Patricia Rourke, a clinical psychologist at Binghamton’s Counseling Center explained that their counseling services are funded through the Student Health Services Fee, which she says is about $175 per semester. This fee goes toward meetings with physicians, nurses and counselors.

Unlimited, but delayed services at SUNY Binghamton.

SUNY Binghamton’s counseling center has 13 full-time counselors and two part time counselors to meet with its 16,000 undergraduate students, according to Dr. Rourke. That puts Binghamton at a student-counselor ratio of about 1:1,066.

There is no limit to the number of counseling sessions students are able to attend at SUNY Binghamton, however both students and counselors admit this leads to longer wait-periods. SUNY Binghamton senior Carole Dore agreed, saying, “That’s true. Unlimited but long waiting periods. Which has ups and downs I guess. If something comes up, people can’t see someone that easily.”

To counteract the long wait-period, Binghamton’s health center adopted a strategy that increases each counselor’s number of sessions during the first three weeks of classes—the counseling center’s busiest time.

Another way Binghamton is working to cut down on students’ wait-periods is by moving weekly appointments to bi-weekly appointments. Dr. Patricia Rourke, a Clinical Psychologist at Binghamton’s counseling center, made sure to clarify that this transition would be based on how well the student progressing. She also noted that the counseling center reserves time for walk-in emergency appointments five days a week. These appointments are heavily utilized, according to Dr. Rourke.

Dr. Fallon-Korb explains the importance of prompt care, saying, “We prioritize making sure people get seen right away in case they are suicidal.”

Increased Demand for Counseling Services? Perhaps nationally, but not so in Oneonta.

“We are seeing evidence that the students coming for services are having some pretty significant mental health issues,” says Dr. Rourke.

In order to keep up with demand, Dr. Rourke says, “We’ve been increasing our staff every year, adding one or two full time counselors. Every time we add, demand increases.” Dr. Rourke says that Binghamton has hired a full time position that serves both clinical and outreach roles.

Even though national trends show increasing numbers of students seeking mental health services, Dr. Fallon-Korb says the number of students seeking help at SUNY Oneonta has remained “relatively stable over the last five years,” between 550 and 600 students each year.

Dr. Rourke says the number of SUNY Binghamton students being hospitalized has increased, but Dr. Fallon-Korb explains that’s not the case in Oneonta. “Fortunately we have actually seen a decrease in terms of number of psychiatric hospitalizations last year and this. But generally the national trend is that colleges are seeing higher numbers of psychiatric hospitalizations overall.”

Are SUNY Oneonta students simply more emotionally stable and well adjusted than students at other universities around the country? If not, then why aren’t more SUNY Oneonta students seeking help?

Oneonta’s Mission

Dr. Fallon-Korb made Oneonta’s mission clear, saying, “The mission of the college is to give everyone an education. The college has a counseling center because sometimes things come up that get in the way of a student’s education and the student might drop out if they didn’t have short-term support here. The mission of the college is not to give everyone free counseling.”

She added, “The Counseling Center supports retention by helping students get short-term help. In order to keep the cost of college affordable, the college sets limits on what the Counseling Center can provide.”

Dr. Fallon-Korb elaborated on the reasoning behind the Counseling Center’s set-up, saying, “We tried to develop a model that was fair to all students, provided a good standard of care for each student’s specific need, and ensured that people who were in crisis had access to immediate help.”

When asked whether the college offers any financial assistance for counseling services after the initial eight to 10 visits, Dr. Fallon-Korb explained, “Students are not offered financial assistance for receiving counseling with outside agencies. At the Otsego County Community Mental Health Clinic, which is downtown right on Main street, [they] have sliding-fee scales, which means students could pay as low as $5 or $10 for a counseling session. All students are required to carry health insurance and now, under the Affordable Care Act, all health insurance plans are required to cover mental health services.”

She added, “We understand that some health insurance plans have a high co-pay and when that is an issue, we try to help students find an on-campus job to help them if they cannot afford the co-pay.”

She explained that the college had to take affordability into account when designing the counseling program. “When we chose a college health insurance plan, we made sure to get very good mental health coverage for the students.  It’s just that having the college be affordable for all students is also important,” said Dr. Fallon-Korb.

The idea that our “low” tuition justifies restricted services is misguided since counseling services are funded by the health fee paid by students each semester, not tuition. And SUNY Oneonta’s health fee is comparable to health fees at other schools that offer long-term counseling options.

If other schools have chosen to allocate their resources in a way that gives students more long-term counseling support, what’s stopping SUNY Oneonta from rearranging its priorities?

While eight to 10 sessions may be enough to keep some students in school until they walk through the pillars, it just doesn’t cut it for many students. What should our mission be–high retention rates or the overall well being, health and happiness of our students?

Foreman noted that there is a “$5,000,000 renovation of the Health Center scheduled for 2016” that “will provide more modern facilities” but would not necessarily “lead to more counselors.”

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