Short staffing and budgeting take toll on UMW Talley Center
By COLLEEN COSGRIFF
The University of Mary Washington’s mental health center, the Talley Center, has struggled to meet the increasing demand from UMW students for services due to their limited staff and budgetary issues, and often try to connect students to off-campus providers due to short staffing or severity of needs.
In August 2013, Kate, the name we will use to protect the identity of the student, began her freshman year at the University of Mary Washington. Just two months later, she would pack up her dorm room and check into a hospital near her home. She says she has suffered from depression and anxiety since her junior year of high school, so she made an appointment with the Talley Center during the first few weeks at Mary Washington.
Her counselor suggested she take psychiatric medication and referred her to the Talley Center’s in-house psychiatrist. Two weeks after beginning medication, Kate told her counselor she was considering suicide and had a plan. Her counselor immediately contacted the other staff at the Talley Center and it was decided Kate should be hospitalized.
None of the hospitals near UMW had space available at the time, so the staff found Kate a place near her home, an hour away from the University. Her mother made the drive to Fredericksburg while Kate and the counselors waited in the Talley Center until 5 p.m., past the center’s office hours.
“Our ethical guidelines say that if it is clear that a student is not appropriate for the level of care or service we can provide, we need to try and connect them to that level of service… we’re not going to be able to continue to see every two weeks knowing they’re going to continue to get worse and worse,” said director of the Talley Center Dr. Tevya Zukor.
Dr. Zukor said the Talley Center utilizes community providers as much as possible. The center’s Mental Health Coordinator, Catherine Smith, maintains a list of low-cost and free providers, most no more than a mile from campus so students can walk or bus to their appointments. Some students on campus do not have insurance, or do not use insurance because they do not want their families to know they are in counseling.
Kate has struggled with paying for counseling because most providers do not accept her insurance. When she returned to UMW in the spring of 2016, after completing an outpatient program and taking community college course, it had been more than two years since she withdrew from UMW.
Kate knew she would need weekly appointments in the spring of 2016 to help with the transition back to school. She found a practice in Central Park, which she could ride an Uber to. Because of her anxiety, Kate would often call her Uber early, worried traffic would cause her to miss an appointment. Once her appointment finished, Kate then had to wait for another Uber to bring her back to school. She said Ubering to the appointment each way could take upwards of an hour.
This semester, Kate decided to return to the Talley Center, but said she is concerned with the frequency of her appointments. She is looking to join one of the Talley Center’s counseling Groups, both to meet other people and because Group sessions meet weekly.
“Group therapy has shown to be at least equally effective to individual therapy and often times long term, it’s actually more effective than individual therapy, so people tend to maintain their treatment gains longer by doing Group. And it makes sense if you think about it, Group is a social environment, the same as our world is,” Dr Zukor said.
The Talley Center is currently organizing their Group Programs for this semester. Dr. Zukor and his staff work with students to find meeting times that comply best with students’ schedules. In a survey created for this article, 37 percent of respondents answered that “frequency of appointments” was a factor when deciding to attend therapy.
Senior Chris Larimer has used the Talley Center in the past to help cope with depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“The only complaints I’ve heard [about the Talley Center] is that there are not enough opportunities to go in and talk… I’d probably feel a little bit more inclined to go to the Talley Center if there was more availability,” Larimer said.
Dr. Zukor says bi-weekly appointments are standard for collegiate mental health services, but a student in crisis can see a counselor every week if needed.
Dr. Zukor says the Talley Center has seen a 20-25 percent increase in request for services, which is in line with national averages regarding collegiate mental health. The center has been struggling to meet the increasing demand of students. Recently, the center’s administrative assistant had to leave her position, which often leaves the front desk unmanned.
“It’s a really big concern for me that right now we are struggling to have our front office are manned. Because that’s where students come in when they’re distressed, when they’re concerned and they need to talk to someone. If all of us are behind closed doors, that student gets kind of stuck,” Dr. Zukor said.
Each year, the Talley Center surveys students who use the center. The survey from the 2015- 2016 school year said over two-thirds of the 600 students who requested services at the Talley Center in had been in counseling for psychological issues before coming to the center. “We have a population that’s more experienced with mental health than many universities,” Dr. Zukor said. “These are already consumers of mental health, that’s actually a good thing. That keeps them more aware of what they need to do so they can be safe and grounded to maintain their wellbeing through a very difficult time in life.”
The Talley Center’s survey found 12 percent of participants had been hospitalized for psychological reasons because they were a harm to themselves, others or incapable of self-care. 42 percent of the surveyed students said before coming to the Talley Center they had “seriously considered suicide,” and 13 percent had made a suicide attempt. UMW’s amount of previously distressed students is slightly higher than the national average, according to Zukor.
“When you look at our staffing levels compared to other comparable universities in Virginia, we’re grossly short staffed…we have less resources than Christopher Newport University, University of Richmond, William and Mary, yet our actual severity is significantly higher than many of those schools,” Dr. Zukor said.
In addition to Dr. Zukor, UMW has two staff counselors, one resident staff counselor who is also the Mental Health Coordinator, a psychiatrist, and five “trainees.” In addition to their director, Christopher Newport University has five Psychology Residents and two staff counselors. University of Richmond’s Mental Health Center has a director, three licensed psychologists, and two counselors.
The Talley Center is in the process of hiring a new counselor, but ideally, Dr. Zukor said, the center would hire three or four more counselors to meet the increasing need of students. Paul Messplay, UMW’s Executive Director of Budget and Financial Analysis, said the university is aware of the increasing caseload the Talley Center faces, which is why the university has authorized funds to hire a new counselor.
“There are always more needs than resources. I think we’re heading in the right direction for them, they’re definitely been recognized as a funding need. They’ve got pretty compelling evidence about their caseload and staffing issues. It’s on everybody’s radar,” Messplay said. Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Student Life, Cedric Rucker has been at Mary Washington for 28 years. In his time at the school, he has seen first-hand how the Talley Center has expanded services, including working with centers in the Fredericksburg community.
“I remember when the Talley Center was called ‘Counseling and Psychological Services,” there were about three people in that office… back then I don't recall the dedication to working with community partners the way that it exists today. I think they take a very global, very community- based approach to assisting and supporting students,” Dean Rucker said.
Kate is off medication for the first time in years. She is still struggling with schoolwork because her depression often makes it hard to focus. During her hospitalization, she discovered art therapy, and plans to become an art therapist to help others find healing. Socially, she hopes her return to UMW will give her “a college experience,” and a chance to make new friends.
“I don’t see a problem with the school. That’s why I came back here, I wanted to finish what I started,” Kate said.
Dr. Zukor said the Talley center will continue to do everything they can to assist students.