Magazine Article

The CSU needs to respond to the growing crisis in delivering student mental health needs

By Mimi Bommersbach, Ph.D.
Chair, CFA Counselors Committee
Counseling Faculty, Counseling & Wellness, CSU Chico

Mental health counseling is a critical part of student success in public higher education. Every faculty member in the CSU is witness to increasing stress and pressure on our students from factors outside of our classrooms. And we have a problem on our campuses in trying to meet that challenge—the number of Counselors per student has been declining in Counseling Centers on CSU campuses.

That is made worse by a policy spreading throughout the CSU system to hire Counselors on temporary contracts, undermining the consistency with which we can work with students.

While CSU managers have written reports and come up with proposals they hope will improve the situation, they have avoided the bottom line—it takes money and commitment to ensure the number of Counselors and the continuity of our presence on a campus.

The American Psychological Association (2011) has noted an “alarming trend on college campuses nationwide”, referring to students seeking help for serious mental health problems. Several systematic data collection studies have been promoted by faculties nationwide. Those studies validate that trend (e.g.,,

A dubious response

Despite mounting evidence of this situation, key administrators in the California State University have pursued questionable solutions to the problem.

For example, a recommendation offered in a 2010 report to the CSU Trustees by their CSU Select Committee on Student Mental Health Services, suggests that the CSU should “review the classification and bargaining unit placement of CSU mental health Counselors.”

Since that time, there has been a concerted effort to eliminate permanent (i.e., tenure-track) Counselor faculty positions. In an era of increased complexity and student need, the CSU has chosen to reduce the number of seasoned, experienced mental health Counselors.

After one CSU campus suddenly lost nearly all its tenure-track lines, and replaced them with temporary hires, Counselor faculty were asked to perform a study comparing temporary and permanent/tenure-track counseling positions. Their study revealed the following:  

◆    CSU Counseling Centers that lost tenure-track lines report increased Counselor stress and morale problems.

◆    Temporary status results in low pay and high Counselor turnover.

◆    Constant turnover creates problems with recruitment and retention of qualified Counselor faculty, especially Counselors of color.

◆    Onerous work demands on faculty in temporary positions has a deleterious impact on campus and counseling center partnerships, and the ability of faculty to participate in shared governance.

In sum, they found that eliminating permanent/tenure-track positions is not an optimal way to increase campus health, safety, student wellness, retention or success.

CSU campuses are dangerously short of Counselors

CFA has been insisting for years that the CSU should follow guidelines suggested by the International Association of Counseling Services (IACS), the major accrediting board for collegiate counseling centers. IACS suggests a minimum student-Counselor ratio of one Counselor for every 1000-1500 students.

Of the 23 CSU campuses, 20 (87%) fail to meet this minimum staffing ratio. It is clear to CSU Counselors on the campuses that the CSU Counseling Centers are understaffed. Many CSU campuses have one Counselor for 4,000 students or more, which according to IACS, increases a university’s liability risk. At a growing number of CSU Counseling Centers, permanent/tenure-track counseling positions have been eliminated and all Counselors are temporary. To make matters worse, the most seasoned Counselors on these campuses have been working there three years or less. 

As CSU mental health Counselors, we question how this practice benefits our students. We question how hiring Counselors on temporary, short term contracts assists students with increasingly high levels of stress and complex mental health needs.

Our students need consistent help over time, and with that we know they do better. In fact, counseling done right would contribute to the CSU Trustee’s aspiration to shorten the time students need to graduate. This is because when a student gets “off track” due to psychosocial stressors, we can help them get back on track and to protect them from the inclination to give up and drop out.

Yet, “study, stall and slow walk” are tactics being used to deplete the ranks of seasoned college mental health Counselors. Like climate change deniers, CSU administrators continue to quibble over the veracity of overwhelming evidence.

Daniel Eisenberg, faculty at the U. of Michigan, published a formula to calculate how much money good counseling services can save a university.  His “return on investment” calculator based on his and others’ research shows that high quality counseling can save a university real money. And certainly, those administrators who are focused primarily on dollars can get motivated by that.  

The CFA Counselors Committee published a timeline that begins in 2006, listing key events, studies and special reports documenting the CSU mental health crisis. Included in this timeline are numerous resolutions, campus specific and system-wide, as well as internal and external reviews, urging that the CSU support and increase mental health services for students. The obvious solution, to hire more permanent Counselors, is mentioned in numerous reviews and resolutions.

Oddly enough, in the CSU, this solution is not entertained. Instead, senior and seasoned counseling positions are scrutinized and eliminated.  

The situation is dire and grows worse each year. Due to tenacious faculty efforts, a $6.9 million state grant was secured for the CSU in 2011 to fund numerous innovative mental health prevention efforts. But just how effective is training faculty, staff, and students in early detection of mental health issues if those students identified as at risk cannot get an appointment or ongoing treatment?

CSU Counseling Centers are overrun with students seeking treatment. These students may be referred out, told their issues are not critical enough, or placed in catch-all wait list groups. As our students become more diverse, the issues they face require more resources, not fewer (e.g., immigration issues, hate crimes, sexual assault/abuse, coming out transitioning).

CFA urges the CSU to invest in the success of its students by hiring more Counselors and ensuring that a minimum of 75% of Counselor positions are permanent and tenure-track. The cost of hiring and retaining experienced Counselors may seem high. However, this investment in student success is more than recovered in the lives of students who got effective counseling help, persisted, and attained their degrees rather than dropping out.

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The International Association of Counseling Services (IACS)
Statement regarding recommended staff to student ratios

Daniel Eisenberg, University of Michigan
Return-on-investment” calculator for mental health (depression) program/services

CFA Counselors Committee
At this web site, see a timeline showing developments in CSU student mental health services