Mental health services at Cal State campuses at 'crisis' levels

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An increase in demand for counseling services at California State University campuses hasn't been met with a corresponding increase in counselors and that is leading to a "crisis," campus mental health officials say.

Now, they're turning to Sacramento in hopes of getting a legislative mandate to hire more staff.

Counselors say students with mental health issues that could lead them to harm themselves or others are seen right away but others could wait weeks or even months for an appointment.

“We have to prioritize because we don’t have enough slots for folks,” said Mimi Bommersbach, a mental health counselor at Chico State.

Bommersbach and other counselors say the greater demand for counseling could be due in part to the domestic troubles today’s students underwent a decade ago during the recession. Therapists say on top of that problems handling jobs and school, a weak social safety net, students with family members who are undocumented, coupled with deficient skills to handle these issues lead to a lot of anxious students.

“Before we would hospitalize a student maybe one or two a semester and now we’re hospitalizing maybe one or two, or three a month,” said Rosa Moreno, a therapist at Cal State Long Beach.

Mental health counselors say anxiety is the most common reason college students call to see a therapist.

“I couldn’t concentrate as much, especially in classes, since I was feeling anxious all the time,” said Cal State Long Beach senior Danny Gonzalez.

He said the one-on-one sessions during his sophomore year helped him learn coping skills to ease the transition to college and help him balance a hectic work and class schedule.

Other students have much more serious issues.

“A friend of mine, he committed suicide on campus. That was the first time I really sought out counseling,” said Adrien Macias, a junior at Cal State Chico. “He died on March 14th and I got my counseling appointment on April 26th. It sucks that I had to wait so long. And I wish I could have had the option to see someone regularly.”

Macias said she wasn’t denied an appointment, but she wasn’t offered one either and she felt like she was rushed out of the offices.

Counselor staffing levels too low

According to California Faculty Association research, the student to counselor ratio at Chico State is 1,900 to one. That’s higher than the 1,500 recommended by national accrediting groups such as the International Association of Counseling Services.

The average ratio at CSU campuses is 2,217 to one. Cal State Los Angeles has the highest ratio: 3,993 to one, while CSU’s Maritime Academy has the lowest at 420 to one.

At those ratios, counselors are only able to see the students experiencing crises, not the ones who need longer term counseling.

“Therapy works because you’re able to develop a trusting, safe relationship with a therapist, somebody who can sit with you and listen to what you’re experiencing and understands you," Moreno said. "You need to have more than a couple of crisis sessions to get to that level of trust."

The University of California says its systemwide student to counselor ratio is 1,140 to one. A spokesman for the California Community College Chancellor said his office does not know what the ratio is for the community colleges. He said about 85 of the system’s 114 campuses have some kind of mental health provider.

A 2010 executive order signed by then California State University Chancellor Charles Reed compelled all 23 CSU campuses to create mental health centers.

“Funding for mental health services comes from the campuses via student fees and there are no mandatory staffing levels associated with the executive order,” said CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp in an email. “Instead, the executive order outlines a holistic approach to support students with appropriate mental health services. Campuses are currently focusing resources on intervention and prevention – working with students before they find themselves in a crisis situation.”

The faculty association said that arrangement has led to the current high ratios.

State law would increase staffing

The California Faculty Association is supporting Senate Bill 968, authored by Sacramento-area Senator Richard Pan, as a solution to the staffing problem.

If it becomes law, Cal State and community college campuses would be required to hire enough counselors to keep a one thousand students per counselor ratio. A legislative analysis says Cal State would have to hire 266 full time counselors.

That’s going to require money. The bill’s next scheduled hearing, in the appropriations committee, is expected to figure out how much money it would take and who would pay for it.