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Correcting the record about the Counseling Center

A report on the University of Maine’s Counseling Center covered by the Maine Campus was inaccurate in its characterization of several key statistics. Dr. Douglas Johnson, director of the Counseling Center, pointed out the report’s errors, specifically in its statement that there is no triage service, a misrepresentation of numbers pertaining to the suicide rate at UMaine and the method used to derive the budget for salaries and benefits.

According to Johnson, the UMaine Counseling Center uses a phone-triage instead of a walk-in service. Students schedule appointments with the front desk staff for the next available time slot, but students who are in crisis are given an urgent-care appointment the same day with one of two on-staff crisis counselors.

“If it’s someone that we think has needs that are beyond the scope of our practice — and there is a defined scope of our practice,“ Johnson said. “We think about referring to off-campus resources and trying to make that as successful as we can.”

The $578,974.75 salaries and benefits budget found in the report is inaccurate. The report cited an estimated benefits package of 15 percent, but the real package is 53 percent of salaries. The total budget for all staff, including the front desk, which was not included in the number found in the report, is about $954,000.

The International Association of Counseling Services recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 1,500 students. The UMaine Counseling Center employs seven, putting them nearly at the recommended number.

Johnson acknowledged that there is a limit to the capabilities of the Counseling Center. The waitlist has continued to grow over the last few years, which he maintains is part of a national trend.

More students come to the Counseling Center in crisis every year — an inflation of 245 percent since 2013 according to Johnson — and the rise has put a strain on resources. Last year, the Counseling Center made 299 crisis appointments, about 10 a week.

There’s not yet a proven cause for the rise in crisis cases.

“We’re not seeing that students have skills the way they appeared to have in the past,” Johnson said. “Now whether that’s a change in the population, a change in the culture, change in the national mood, there’s a lot of speculation there.”

The final issue with the report was a misrepresentation of data and a fact-checking mistake on the part of the Maine Campus writer. The report alleged that the suicide rate at UMaine was triple the national average for schools with similar populations: two a year versus 0.67. The suicide rate reported by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors is “clients who died by suicide.”

Two students may have died by suicide at UMaine this year, but neither of them had ever reached out to the Counseling Center. The Counseling Center had no clients die by suicide in 2018.

A more accurate statistic is the suicide rate of all students, which is about 0.75 per 10,000 students. Over the 16 years that Johnson has been keeping a record, 10 UMaine students have died by suicide. Eight of them never contacted the Counseling Center, and none of them were clients when they died.

Johnson expressed worry that the report could affect the Counseling Center’s ability to help the student population

“My hope is that it doesn’t harm the Counseling Center or students by keeping them from trusting us … Those thresholds are hard enough to cross for someone who is struggling and we want to make it as easy and painless as possible,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that even with the success of the Counseling Center as it is, they need more counselors.

During a site visit by the International Association of Counseling Services, the Counseling Center’s accreditor, it was determined that the increase in student visits was overburdening the staff. Johnson said the visit had an impact on getting another counselor position at the center. Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Robert Dana was able to get another counseling position approved through his advocacy for the Center.

Johnson is currently looking to hire a psychologist, but because of budgetary restrictions that’s not easy. The salary range for a new UMaine psychologist would be $50,000 to $55,000.

“That’s all I have,” He said. “Most psychologists in the region can go out and get a range of $66,000 to $98,000.”

“Believe me, I hate having a waitlist. I’ve been director for 20 years, and I’ve fought it for 17,” Johnson said. “I am here to advocate for students. It’s my job to really assure quality and responsiveness as much as possible.”

“If anybody wants to talk to me, please let them know that I don’t bite,” Johnson said. “I really want to hear from folks. We’re here for the students. My staff cries every day about the stories we hear from the students we try to help.”

Students can contact the Counseling Center at (207) 581-1392 and Title IX Student Services at (207) 581-1406.

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