Counselor faculty spend much of their days listening with patience and care.
What CSU counselors want and need is for administrators to listen to them.
“Counselors want to provide our students with quality services in a healthy work environment. Counselors enjoy the work with students; it’s very rewarding, but the environment in which we work can create undue stress, exhaustion, and burnout,” said Susan Chen, San Francisco State University counselor, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and chair of CFA’s Counselors Committee.
Chen, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, was hired into a tenure-track position in 2010 to fill a critical need as nearly one-third of the university’s students identify as Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA). She is working with CFA members, counselor colleagues, other faculty, students, and staff to advocate for more counselors across the 23 CSU campuses. The CSU needs to hire more counselors to ease counselor workload and improve student access to necessary mental health services. Campuses also need to hire more counselors who identify as Black, Chicanx/Latinx, Indigenous, Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American, and/or LGBTQIA+.
For example, following the death of a Black student at Cal Poly Humboldt in 2017, available counseling services were not accessed by the Black student community because there were no Black counselors on staff, Chen said. To promote a sense of cohesion and safety, Black counselors had to be recruited from San Francisco State and CSU Northridge.
“We believe all levels of the administration, including the CSU Chancellor’s Office, can learn from the unique insights that counselors have about ongoing mental health needs and emerging crises. Counselors can offer best practices for enhancing the mental health and well-being of students and the campus community from the perspective of front-line professionals. Counselors also certainly understand what is needed to work more effectively and efficiently, what impacts morale among counselors, what helps make the counseling center a healthy workplace, and the multiple ways that the loss of tenure-track counselor positions over at least seven years has been adversely affecting CSU counseling centers’ stability,” Chen said. “Finally, besides salary issues, why has it been so difficult to hire and retain Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) applicants when it is of critical importance to hire counselors who reflect the racial, ethnic, linguistic, sexual, and gender diversity of our campus?”
Counselors provide direct services to students in the form of brief individual counseling sessions, as well as crisis counseling, groups, referrals to other resources, outreach and presentations, supervision for graduate student trainees and unlicensed counselors, and consultation to faculty, staff, and administrators.
The goal is to build students’ capacity and resiliency by meeting student clients where they are with their struggles and working with them to approach and achieve their goals. Counselors play an important role in retaining diverse students and helping them graduate.
“I feel so touched by students. It’s such a great privilege to bear witness to so many experiences of pain, suffering, depression, and anxiety that they may have had difficulty discussing with anyone else because of social and cultural stigma,” Chen said. “At SF State, our counselors serve many BIPOC, first generation, and students from marginalized communities. Each person has their own unique challenges or has been impacted by harm such as oppression, trauma, and bullying. We provide a confidential, safe space for students to share their feelings and thoughts with a mental health professional who can provide the guidance that they deserve. We hear about their struggles as well as their successes as they work on personal growth.”
The COVID-19 pandemic glaringly exposed students’ need for mental health services. Emerging evidence suggests there will be serious long-term mental health implications due to the pandemic.
“As counselors, we are trained to deal with uncertainty and to tolerate the unknown. COVID was the epitome of uncertainty. As the world dealt with COVID and everything was shutting down, counselors had to quickly pivot and provide virtual services while addressing the physical and emotional safety of our students,” Chen said. “Students could now receive services in the comfort and convenience of home, but home could also be a difficult and stressful place with limited safety or privacy. For example, students were joining their virtual counseling sessions from locations such as their car, a bathroom or closet, or walking around outside so their family did not know they were having a counseling session. Students still reference being impacted by the immense isolation experienced during the pandemic, and the fact that they are coming onto campus has created much social anxiety with being around people again, with some students having difficulty adjusting to these changes.”
Part of the solution to improving mental health access includes stable and permanent positions for counselors. A tenure-track position is a job that provides permanency, job security, and allows counselors to build a career working not just in the counseling center but building lasting trusted connections with departments across campus and participating in shared governance.
For example, when the campus knows its counselors well, they are more likely to refer and consult about students of concern. However, the majority of CSU counseling centers employ counselors on one-year temporary contracts and much time is often spent on repeated or failed counselor searches. Permanent positions – such as tenure-track positions – stand out and attract quality applicants from diverse backgrounds far and wide.
“Some CSU counseling centers are trying to find ways to serve more students by contracting with TimelyMD or other outside and unknown providers, which may initially seem like a good idea. However, we would like to advocate for the benefits of putting valuable resources into building stable and healthy counseling centers with diverse counselors who really know our campus inside and out, who are passionate about working with our students, and who reflect our students’ intersectional identities,” Chen said.
“It takes so much strength for some students to finally seek support – in that critical moment, they are looking for empathy, connection, and support, not to be referred to outside services. I understand the reality of budget constraints, but cannot help but wonder how many more students we could serve if we had more human capacity and were not so understaffed – do our mostly BIPOC students across the CSU not deserve better?”
Public Health Advocacy
Chen has been a counselor at San Francisco State for over 12 years. This is her third career after working in nutrition and public health, including Healthcare for the Homeless and HIV programs. Chen remembers wanting a career that allowed her to work closely with people while advocating for social justice.
“The counseling and psychology field is fascinating and has allowed me to better understand myself, and how important it is to approach this work with cultural humility, in culturally responsive ways. With clinical counseling work, I have found meaningful work that I love,” Chen said.
Outside of counseling, her activism and community organizing includes past work with LGBTQ and Asian communities, women of color, Cuban solidarity groups, and in recent years, justice for Palestine. “For me, activism and solidarity work are the source of great feelings of love and connections with others. There is nothing better than this type of feeling and the beautiful and noble people I have met who are doing this work long term. Injustice impacts one’s ability to live and thrive and can’t be ignored,” she said.
Participating in CFA’s socially just activism was a natural fit.
Meeting fellow counselor faculty was incredibly helpful and, over the years, CFA’s Counselors Committee and network of counselor representatives has grown, primarily meeting monthly and more to connect, share best practices, and to provide support and advocacy for important issues that arise in our efforts to enhance counselor working conditions, said Chen, who also served on CFA San Francisco’s executive board, on CFA’s Council for Affirmative Action (now the Council for Racial & Social Justice), and co-chaired CFA’s Asian and Pacific Islander (now APIDA) Caucus.
“Being able to spend quality time to get acquainted with fellow CFA members and working together on our committees has led to alliances, connections, and several lifelong friendships, which counters the challenges of counselors and other faculty working in isolation in difficult conditions with little support,” Chen reflected. “Getting involved with the union means learning valuable information about faculty rights, being connected to allies, as well as many learning opportunities, as CFA shares a variety of resources.”
Chen is grateful to those who are listening to counselor voices and participating in the movement for social justice and access to high quality mental health services.
“Everybody is struggling. I believe everyone in this world deserves a time and space to be paid attention to.”