February 25, 2024

Counseling Center Hopeful After a Decade of Felt Neglect

Kate Walker '22 Editor in Chief

[Counselor Reid Swetland holds a sign with mental health advice; IG: @shrinkwithsign]

[Updated on May 2, 2022 for clarification]

The Center for Student Counseling and Wellness at Gordon College has braved a tumultuous relationship with administration over the past decade. The counselors see 25–30% of the student body every year—342 to 410 students—with fewer than 5 full-time employees. During the presidency of Dr. D. Michael Lindsay, Director of the Counseling Center Deana Trefry made several requests to hire additional counselors, all of which were denied. In 2019, Lindsay and former VP of Student Life Jennifer Jukanovich suggested outsourcing the Counseling Center entirely to relieve financial stress on the college, a move that counselors adamantly fought against for the welfare of the student body as well as their own job security. Today, the Counseling Center is in the process of addressing these serious understaffing issues.

At Gordon, 37.5 hours a week constitutes full-time work. As of 2022, the Counseling Center has the equivalent of 4.2 full-time employees, and a full-time 5.2 equivalent, if graduate interns are included. Over the past decade, the percentage of students requesting services has steadily climbed from 22% of the student body to 24%, and then to 26%, 27%, and 29%. In 2021, Gordon hit its all-time highest at 30% of the student body seeking help from the Counseling Center. According to Reid Swetland, Associate Dean of Student Engagement and primary counselor for the college, “That is twice the national average . . . not just for schools our size.”

Swetland offers some explanations for why the numbers are so high. Many students who come to Gordon have never had access to counseling, and the Gordon’s Counseling Center has a high satisfaction rate. Confidentiality is assured, especially due to the additional layer of privacy because the center does not use student insurance. The fee, $90 in total for up to eight individual counseling sessions, is accessible for many students.  

This high performance, however, puts a huge strain on counselors. Swetland says, “We’ve had to ask for more staffing. For a college our size, we are comparatively understaffed. For our percentage of usage, we are vastly understaffed.” And yet, both Swetland and Trefry report that Gordon counselors “are making below industry standard in this area.”

In the first three months of 2022 alone, 362 students have requested services from the Counseling Center. In addition to the first free session for every student, Trefry says that every year 40% of students that attend individual counseling come between 1 and 5 times. Although the counselors make a tremendous effort to see every student requesting services at least once, they are sometimes so overbooked that a few students must be put on hold for weeks.

“For fun,” Swetland decided to calculate for the past five years the number of students seeking Counseling Center resources and compare it to the number of students who compete in varsity athletics, crosschecking between multiple-sport athletes and coaches who serve in dual roles. Without counting last year because of Covid abnormalities, there was a 1 to 9 coach to athlete ratio.

Swetland says, “With our staffing ratio and the number of students that we see—and more students seek out counseling services than they do athletics—we’ve been around a 1 to 68 counselor to student ratio. Not every counselor sees that many. Deana and myself have typically seen higher.” These are different students, not different appointments. “And then you have to ask the horrible question: well, whose budget is bigger?”

These felt understaffing and underpayment problems are not recent developments. Trefry came to Gordon as the Director of the Counseling Center in 2012, a year after Lindsay became president. She says, “He made it clear to us, Dr. Lindsay, that mental health was not a priority in terms of funding. You know, there were clear goals that he had laid out for the college, but it did not really include the increasing of mental health services for students. And that was made clear just because of the number of students that we received. And the staff was overtaxed. I was overtaxed.”

At that time, Swetland and Trefry were the only full-time counselors, with Heidi Forget falling around 31 hours per week. The majority of one-on-one counseling, however, fell between Trefry and Swetland. “And so I asked for help,” Trefry says. “I asked for more staffing and I asked several times, and eventually DML [Dr. Michael Lindsay] came back through two staff members telling me that it was a hard no. . . . I kept asking, and that was made clear. We were seeing, as always, 25–30% of the student body, which is twice the national average. Then came the budget cuts throughout the years.”

Rick Sweeney, Gordon’s VP of Marketing and External Relations, states, “Our new VP for Student Life tells me that the current standards for the International Accrediting of Counseling Services (which many universities use) call for a minimum staffing ratio of one F.T.E. professional staff member (excluding trainees) to every 1,000 to 1,500 students, depending on services offered with the understanding that each institution is different. Given the investment required and the many needs at Gordon, it can be a challenge to grow expand staff even in areas where it would be very helpful, but we are always looking for creative ways to address campus needs and this is a priority for President Hammond’s administration.”

Although the counselors acknowledge that Gordon meets the national standard for counselors, the heavy demand for services means that the ratio doesn’t necessarily reflect the need for more services. Trefry says that “even though we could use more clinical staff hours to provide services for students, technically we have more staff than is ‘standard.’”

In 2019, when the college had to cut entire departments and make budget cuts across the board, there was discussion of outsourcing the Counseling Center. The proposal was to have the Gordon counselors employed by a local group counseling practice, but remain on campus. It was uncertain whether Gordon’s counselors would be able to work with the new agency or if the agency would use their own staff. Swetland states, “The biggest issue was our fight to protect student privacy, and having services provided by an off-campus agency would mean that certain layers of privacy would go away because of using student insurance.” 

Through outsourcing, students would be able to access counseling resources, but would have to use their health insurance out of pocket to cover the drastically increased prices. A huge difficulty with outsourcing is that insurance only covers therapy if an individual has a diagnosis. Without a diagnosis and insurance, a single one-hour session can range from $60–$120 on the lower end. At the time of this proposal, Gordon’s counseling was completely free to students.

It was left to the counselors to convince the college not to follow through with this proposal. Outsourcing the Counseling Center would save the college money on staff salaries and student fees, but would introduce a host of problems, least of which being financial inaccessibility to students. Swetland says, “We were slightly panicked. And then we had to scramble and come up with information that said ‘this is a terrible idea,’ including Deana Trefry taking Terry and others to an off-campus counselor to interview and discuss it. . . . Even an outside counselor was saying that it was the dumbest idea.”

According to Trefry, the push to outsource came from one member in administration and Lindsay. Communication was difficult because Trefry had to go through two staff members in order to reach Lindsay for anything, although it is typical for there to be only one spokesperson between the Director of the Counseling Center and the President. That being said, Trefry says that “[Lindsay] was on board with the idea. And again . . . I understand the budget and trying to stay afloat as a college.”

After an arduous process, Trefry convinced several staff members to defend the Counseling Center’s place at the college and the outsourcing idea was rejected. However, they did have to add a user fee, which is now $90 per semester.

According to Swetland, the college was “looking at all kinds of places to create revenue strains.” He says that a person in administration saw that the Counseling Center had 2,500 appointments that year and mentioned that if there were even a $25 copay, the college would get a huge revenue stream. Swetland says, “That’s extremely simplistic math because that’s not how it would work.” A $25 copay per session would inhibit students from seeking help, particularly from students who pay for their own counseling in order to protect their own privacy from families.

Unfortunately, this compromise did not mend the tenuous relationship between the college and student mental health proponents. In November of 2020, students gathered in Frost Hall to rally and mourn an act of racism against Black students Gordon’s campus. During this time, student leaders assembled a list of demands for the college to increase diversity on staff and ensure safety for people of color at Gordon.

In response, then-president Lindsay sent out an email on November 3, 2020 wherein he gave six objectives for diversifying staff and supporting students of color. The second promise states: “In the near term, we will also seek to provide counseling services for students of color who request it with a counselor who is racially diverse, through outsourcing if necessary, during this difficult season at no additional cost to students.”

The problem with Lindsay’s promise was that he “never stepped foot in the Counseling Center” and did not know what it would take to follow through with this promise. Trefry expressed that “we thought that this was necessary for sure. We want a more diverse staff, but we were not prepared to provide that.”

Swetland says, “We found out the same time the announcement was made that we would be able to hire a person of color. And what I mean by that is that [Lindsay] never contacted us. Nobody from his office contacted us to say, ‘Hey, how could this work? What would it take to hire somebody, a person of color? We found out when everybody did. So, while it was meeting a request, it was also impulsive and kind of placating.” Notably, this promise of another counselor was made after several rejected requests made by Trefry in years prior.

After the promise was made to students, the counselors themselves were responsible for finding, screening, and hiring a new counselor. Although there were several suggestions presented by non-counselor staff, it was very difficult to find a counselor of color who was willing to move nearby and work with the budget Gordon offered. Tolieth Marks was hired from Gordon Conwell as a graduate intern, but she graduated in the fall of 2021 and has since moved on from Gordon.

Of Lindsay’s presidency, Trefry remarked, “Mental health care of students was not a priority, and we just felt that as a staff, so that’s what it was like for us. It was difficult. It was really hard.”

Trefry also noted that underpayment “runs across the board in general. I am aware that the staff that work here could work elsewhere for more money; just an hourly rate would be much more than what they get here. And the college is aware of that, I mean I’ve said it again and again.”

The Tartan reached out to Lindsay and Taylor University’s office of External Relations several times for a comment. The Tartan did not receive a response from either Lindsay or Taylor. However, Taylor’s office did acknowledge receiving the request by separately contacting Rick Sweeney, Gordon’s VP for Marketing and External Relations, to inquire about the Tartan’s request.

Moving forward, the counselors have added a host of weekly educational courses and support groups open to the entire campus for CL&W credit. These include Covid Conversations, Sexual Assault Awareness & Personal Safety Seminar Series, Relationships: What Do You Believe About Them?, No More! How to Deal with Stress, International Student Seminar Series, Foundations (Getting Unstuck), Foundations (Anxiety Toolbox), Mental Health-y Lunch, Can We Talk?, Men’s Healthy Sexuality, Sexual Assault Support Group, Groups for RAs/ACs, and a number of events run by student interns, such as Art Therapy.

The college does not compensate counselors for this work, as it is built into their salaries. Trefry says that some of the research for these seminars is done during office hours, but much of the work is done at home or on the weekends. “It does take extra time, but we’re committed to providing services for students.”

The benefit of these classes is that both the seminars and support groups offer mental health support that is accessible outside of the traditional individual counseling model. Although there is not always room for students to get one-on-one counseling, there are several seminars and groups that take place over the course of the week and are open to all students. In their spare time, the counselors are also putting together a proposal for a 2-credit class for the Spring 2023 semester called Applied Theories of Learning.

Swetland does not know whether there is a plan to have more counselors hired, but says that the college would benefit from having Corri Ogburn and Alejandra Fontecha-Bowes, the two part-time employees, as full-time counselors. Currently, students might have to wait for over two weeks to see a counselor, and there are times when they simply cannot get to everyone. If there is no one available to help, the student can wait to meet with their preferred counselor, take the soonest available appointment, meet with an intern, or go off-campus for help, as part of the Stepped-Care model.

One student, who requested to remain anonymous, said that she has been on hold for a meeting since February. Another student, Lilah Lugo, states that she “suffered from really bad PTSD and it affected my everyday life. The counseling center took a really long time to see me and when they did, it I would only have an appointment about once a month.”

Counselors Trefry, Forget, and Swetland met with President Hammond last week to discuss these concerns as well as the future of the Counseling Center, which Trefry reports “was excellent.” Swetland echoes this sentiment. “President Hammond has expressed a recognition and understanding of mental health of students, and it feels like student care is a priority.”

Swetland shares a fond memory of the first day that President Hammond and Mrs. Jennifer Hammond came to Gordon. Both expressed their appreciation for the work that the counselors do for students and the value it has for student ministry and development. During orientation, Hammond passed Swetland on the sidewalk and raised his manila folder over his head as a tribute to Shrink With Sign, Swetland’s Instagram account where he posts encouraging messages on a sign every week. Hammond also is known to repost Shrink With Sign on his Instagram stories.

2022 brings a hopeful outlook for mental health at Gordon. The budget for mental health services was expanded for the 2021–2022 years. The Counseling Center added three additional days of clinical hours (24 hours) and Heidi Forget increased her hours from 31 to 37.5, now operating as a full-time counselor. The groups and seminars hosted by Counseling Center staff and interns offer CL&W credit, further promoting holistic health for students at Gordon.

Trefry states that “[Hammond] is a proponent for the mental health of our students, and we look forward to him coming alongside us as we continue in our mission to meet the mental health needs of our students through our stepped care model, which we continue to fine-tune.” She adds that “although we did suffer as a counseling center, we have felt supported throughout the past year and feel encouraged that we will continue to feel supported with Mike Hammond’s and Jen Skagg’s leadership and collaboration.”

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