Campus News

CAPS understaffing fueling student frustrations

Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

Over the past decade, the discussion surrounding mental health has become an increasingly pressing matter. College students, in particular, are more likely to experience issues relating to well-being, and campuses nationwide have seen a surge in demand for counseling services in recent years. 

In 2016, the Texas Tribune published an article that examined several Texas universities’ counseling and psychological resources relative to their student body populations. The Tribune’s investigation found a critical lack of resources among all Texas colleges, with UH being the most understaffed for its size. 

In the years since the article was published, the University has taken steps to address the staffing issues in its Counseling and Psychological Services program. Yet, the program still has a long way to go according to students like Sofia Rueda Contreras, an undergraduate studying english. 

“Overall, I wouldn’t waste my time going again because they don’t put the effort to help in the long run,” Contreras said. “Before I left the counseling, CAPS was supposed to email me the information I needed to schedule my one-on-one appointment within 1-2 weeks. I never heard back and never received an email. I was left with no aid afterward.”

Though Contreras’s experience is just one of the 1,746 students seen by CAPS in 2021, her story echoes the complaints of users on social media, many of who report being turned away after being told CAPS was intended only for short-term support. 

The Tribune’s article reported that as of 2016, UH had roughly one full-time counseling staff member per 3,285 students, a figure well below the one per 1,500 recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services. 

Since then, the University has hired an additional nine counselors, bringing the total number of staff to 22, or about one per 2,122 students. While this still fails to meet the standard set by the IACS, CAPS director Dr. Norma Ngo said that universities are transitioning to a new standard for evaluating mental health resources. 

“Increasingly, counseling centers are transitioning away from a universal counselor-to-student ratio to a newer metric of Clinical Load Index,” Ngo said. “This metric considers the relative size of the university, utilization rate and treatment model. It tells us how many students need to be serviced by each clinician for everyone who wants to receive services to have them.”

It’s worth noting that the IACS acknowledges the use of CLI as an alternative standard for evaluating program capacity. The organization stated in its Standards for University and College Services that “Additional measures may be accessed to evaluate necessary staffing for the clinical capacity of the center (i.e., Clinical Load Index).”

Measurement concerns aside, the University is still considered relatively understaffed by the standards of CLI, Ngo said. 

“Currently, CAPS has a CLI of 118 (100 being the mean), which means that we need to see more students per counselor than at 66 percent of the 626 higher education counseling centers we compare ourselves to,” Ngo said. “Our goal is to be closer to the CLI mean.” 

Closing that gap is a task easier said than done, however. Across the country, university counseling centers have reported a lack of sufficient funding, and UH is no exception. 

CAPS currently draws the vast majority of its funding from student fees, which are adjusted annually by the Student Fees and Advisory Committee. For the 2023-2024 fiscal year, CAPS was allotted a total of $2,739,959. While that figure may seem large, roughly $1,646,338 of those funds are used to pay the 22 employees currently working for CAPS. 

This leaves the University with two options: increase student fees, or allocate funding away from another SFAC-funded program. But with college tuition reaching record highs, and the need for resources in other departments, the University is not yet ready to explore either option, said Chris Dawe, assistant vice president for student affairs – health and well-being. 

“We recognize the important national discussion taking place on mental health right now and would certainly welcome additional funding in the future,” Dawe said. “But we are prepared to work within the current budget to provide students with quality mental health services.” 

While this could change during the next legislative session, as the University has previously requested adjustments to CAPS funding in its 2021 legislative agenda, for the time being, students will have to make do with the resources available. 

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