VSA addresses increased need for counseling services

The Metcalf House, which hosts all of Vassar’s mental health and counseling services, has been criticized for being understaffed and inaccessible to students by the Vassar Student Association. Photo By: Vassar College
The Metcalf House, which hosts all of Vassar’s mental health and counseling services, has been criticized for being understaffed and inaccessible to students by the Vassar Student Association. Photo By: Vassar College
The Metcalf House, which hosts all of Vassar’s mental health and counseling services, has been
criticized for being understaffed and inaccessible to students by the Vassar Student Association. Photo By: Vassar College

On Sunday, Feb. 2, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) council approved a letter to be sent to President Catharine Hill and other Vassar administrators calling for a post-doctoral fellowship to be instituted in Counseling Services at the Metcalf House. The letter was drafted by President of the South Commons, Rebecca Bauer ’14 and was unanimously supported by all members of the VSA.

The letter starts by referring back to a meeting the VSA had with the Director of Counseling Services at Vassar College, Wendy Freedman on Nov. 24 of last year. According to the letter, many council members at this meeting expressed concern about the limited number of staff members available at Metcalf and the high demand for counseling services.

These sentiments were clearly expressed in the letter drafted by Bauer. As the letter states, “Some [students] have reported having to wait over two weeks for an initial appointment. Current clients already need to wait two weeks in between appointments, which is particularly concerning for students at high risk. [Freedman] expressed concern with the current situation, because according to the staff’s ethical code, it is quite clear more staff members are needed to accommodate the number of students being seen.”

The letter continues, detailing the concerns expressed by both VSA councilmembers and Freedman in their initial meeting. “[Freedman] also indicated that Metcalf is more highly utilized than [counseling services at] many other colleges that participated in the Association of University and College Counseling Center survey. Finding these facts concerning, the VSA council researched the resources and practices of counseling centers at peer institutions,” it reads.

Bauer spoke to the feelings of the VSA after meeting with Freedman last year. “After our meeting with Wendy Freedman, we concluded that Metcalf is a great resource but we wanted to find a way to make it more easily accessible to students. Our top concern was the amount of time students need to wait in between appointments and before initial appointments, due to limitations in their staffing,” she said.

After explaining the results of this first meeting, the letter then goes on, using statistics to support the claim that Counseling Services are understaffed and would benefit greatly from a post-doctoral fellowship. Using data collected from peer institutions including Barnard, Williams and Amherst, Bauer was able to rank Vassar against similar small colleges in an attempt to contextualize the concerns that the VSA and Freedman had. As Bauer said, “Of 20 peer institutions, 16 provided enough information to be included. Information that I used included the student population of each institution and the number of mental health care professionals staffing that school’s office.”

As a result, Bauer found that Vassar ranks 9th out of 16 schools in terms of its psychologist to student ratio. When considering all non-pyschologist mental health staff members, including postgrad interns, doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and counseling clinicians, however, Vassar’s ranking drops to 14th out of the 16 schools.

Freedmen echoed the dsire for more resources at Vassar. She wrote in an emailed statement, “According to the 2012 director survey from the Association for University College Counseling Center Directors, the average number of students served by Counseling Services per year for institutions of similar size (1,501 to 2,500 student body) is 306. At 500 students per year, Vassar’s Counseling Service is serving a greater proportion of the student body than our peers.”

This data was then put into context with information explaining how mental health services are becoming increasingly sought after at Vassar. As the letter explains, “The VSA Council feels hiring a post-doctoral fellow is necessary not just to remain in line with our peers, but most importantly, to satisfy a growing need in our community. Compared to the 2012 fall semester, this past semester has seen a 27 [percent] increase in crisis calls and a 375 [percent] increase in on call/weekend contacts.”

Freedman, speaking from the perspective of someone who works closely with the mental health service providers at Vassar, confirmed this increase. As she said, “Vassar students are resilient, bright and talented. However, like other counseling services across the country, we have seen an overall increase in the severity of psychological symptoms that many of our students are experiencing, necessitating additional support and care. Additionally, given the challenging economic times and the growing economic diversity of our student body, we have more students who state that they cannot afford off-campus treatment and instead seek support through the Counseling Service.”

Bauer, Freedman and the VSA all acknowledged that the Administration faced extremely difficult financial decisions and that new hiring for the College would put a significant burden on the College’s finances. As Freedman stated, “Hiring decisions are very challenging given this concern. A post-doctoral fellow would be a cost-effective method for the College to add to the Counseling Service staffing, but the additional cost must be carefully weighed by the senior officers against the other needs of the College.” Post-doctoral fellows are only hired for a year and are therefore less of a financial commitment for the college than instituting a permanent position would be.

Despite the cost of the bringing another post-doctoral fellow to campus, the letter argued this was essential for the well-being of students. Freedman claimed, “A post-doctoral fellow would see a full caseload of students, shortening the time students wait for initial appointments, reducing the time between appointments, and allowing counselors to work more closely and effectively with students.”

In discussion of the letter at the VSA council meeting on Feb. 2, many expressed the concern that offering adequate mental health services to students was not something the college made as important as it should. The letter concludes, “As mental health affects all aspects of student life, VSA Council feels adequately staffing our counseling center should be a top priority.”

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