Faculty raise concerns about lack of counseling services, burdened with personal stress

Faculty members raised concerns over lack of initiative by University Counseling Services (UCS) during the Nov. 3 Faculty Council meeting.

Newsline published an article offering advice for faculty and staff on how to best support students during finals. Director of UCS Tow Yau gave more advice about how to interact with stressed out students.

“Faculty are not mental health professionals, but they play an important role as the so-called gatekeeper for students, who often reach out to them first when they’re having problems,” Yau said in Newsline. “Our current generation of students is very open to sharing their mental health issues, and we want to be sure faculty have the tools and resources to respond.”

UCS has not made any hires yet and is still relying on My Student Support System (SSP) for DePaul students.

Professor Jay Baglia gave a presentation to the Faculty Council where he cited that faculty was not made aware of the lack of counselors at the beginning of the academic year.

“There was no heads up — not from the office of marketing and communications or anyone else — at the beginning of the fall,” Baglia said in his presentation at the meeting. “No references to this considerable alteration at convocation or during the state of the university presentation.”

Baglia also addressed Newsline’s article at the meeting where he said that he “facepalmed” at the administration’s response.

He had heard rumors from students about the lack of counseling services. Once confirmed, Baglia started hearing student testimonies about My SSP.

“Students confirm that their experience with My SSP was anything but ideal,” he said. “There are certainly uses for an app like My SSP as a stop gap as that would allow the university to offer some kind of counseling services for students who live out of state.You can’t provide counseling to a student who’s not in the state. So there are uses for an app but as far as I know, there’s not many examples of a university who’s gone almost exclusively to the app.”

Other members mentioned how Loyola University Chicago is currency fully staffed with nurses, social workers, psychologists and a therapy dog.

DePaul’s Vice President of Student Affairs Gene Zdziarski, who was in attendance at the Nov. 3 meeting, explained many factors that contributed to the current situation.

“We got into this pandemic and there was a number of hiring freezes, this was one of the positions we put on hold,” he said. “That combined with the other opportunities. There are a lot of different reasons why we’re in this situation. Our concern at this point is to provide resources to the best of our ability and refill these positions as quickly as possible.

He said that other Chicago universities were in similar situations during the pandemic.

“Northwestern was in a similar situation a year ago,” he said at the meeting. “A lot of this has to do with turnover of different staff.”

A university with 20 to 25 thousand students needs at least nine counselors, according to Baglia. Whereas DePaul had 21 thousand students in 2020.

“But the average across the United States, without knowing whether we’re talking about private or public colleges, is 14 [counselors] for a university of our size,” Baglia said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had 14 counselors.”

DePaul has posted job listings for nine university counseling positions, according to Zdziarski.

However, faculty have only seen the associate director and two part time positions. Some of the positions are listed as “temporary”. To which Baglia said this is “woefully inadequate.”

A faculty council member asked whether Zdziarski took into consideration any exit interviews from previous counselors about work conditions.

“I have not gotten specifics related to the exit interviews concerning the counselors,” Zdziarski responded. “HR did some exit interviews for many staff and student affairs,  it was the idea of coming back to an in person environment versus a remote environment.”

He assured that the lack of counselors has hit the university hard.

“There are some articles out there that you can see it’s more than just us,” Zdziarski said. “But certainly we’ve been hit hard as it relates to the counselors.”

In the meantime, faculty and staff will be the primary support system for students. Baglia said this adds more stress to their jobs.

“I believe professors at DePaul embrace personalism and embrace the idea of caring for and being kind to their students and being flexible with their students,” he said, “But we are also not equipped to provide any kind of mental health counseling. And quite honestly, if the burden of listening becomes overwhelming, we ourselves are capable of burnout by virtue of that kind of heavy trauma, lifting heavy trauma and taking on the trauma of others has a cost.”

Yau recommended asking students certain questions to help faculty adjust to their newfound predicament.

“Be prepared not to be distracted by other things,” Yau said in Newsline. “You can ask open-ended questions, such as, ‘How’s your family? How’s life? How’s school?’ That can open the conversation, and then wait for students to express what is going on.”

However, Baglia said referring students to an app makes him feel powerless.

“I do feel helpless when I can’t provide a service or more refers to a service that is a status quo served at every university in this country,” he said.

To make up for the lack of direct services, some DePaul groups are trying to find outside resources. The Women’s Center has found Lu Rocha has services for students at no cost during finals.

Yau said that part of faculty support is referring to counseling services.Yau and Zdziarski did not provide a timeline or plan for upcoming finals or winter quarter.

“We need forward thinking and action — now,” Baglia said at the meeting. “Those of us in the classroom require a public accounting of the mental health support plan that is being implemented.”

Yau will be attending the Nov. 11 Student Government Association meeting to answer student questions.