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Staff Shortages in Howard Mental Health Services Leave Some Students Without Support

Howard University faces challenges in providing adequate mental health support to students amid high demand, long wait times and accessibility issues.

Illustration by Jabari Courtney/The Hilltop 

As first-year students navigate the landscape of Howard with eagerness, DeJah Fleurancois navigates her last year with a different emotion: grief.

Fleurancois, a senior nutritional science major from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, enrolled at Howard during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite enrolling in online school, she made one of her best friends. The two talked nearly every day and became roommates during their freshman year. 

But during the second semester of Fleurancois’ junior year, her friend died. 

“It is a day-by-day experience,” Fleurancois said. “Grief has no timeline. Even being at Howard and in D.C is probably the hardest thing for me because my friend helped me get acclimated to Howard and D.C.” 

Following her loss, Fleurancois sought support from University Counseling Services, an avenue she hoped would provide the support she needed. 

UCS is a campus resource to support the mental health of Howard students. They offer different services such as medication management, group therapy and individual therapy. Students who sought help from UCS say they’re still waiting for a response years after contacting them, but the counseling services attribute long times to staffing issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just genuinely needed someone to talk to, to recenter myself, so I could be okay being at Howard and make sure I was doing well in school,” Fleurancois said.

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Fleurancois already used the counseling services during her first semester of junior year for general counseling but needed more support following her friend’s death.

“I was seeking guidance in life. It was the beginning of junior year. Friendships were changing, and relationships were changing…I did not know which direction I was going in. I needed the guidance to get to the root of my feelings and a lot of the things that I had going on,” Fleurancois said. 

During her time with the counseling services, Fleurancois established a meaningful connection with a counselor but still had concerns about the availability of mental health services on campus. 

“With a lot of us being very far from home, and going through a lot and living in a city, it is very important that we have these services, and we know that they are readily available. It is partially on them [students] but it is also on the university,” she said.

According to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic, the largest integrated not-for-profit medical group practice in the world, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three college students experience significant depression and anxiety.

Despite an increased need for mental health support, the accessibility to on-campus mental health support and the disparities in select policies compared to other institutions in surrounding areas are of concern to students. 

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Staffing information on the website is outdated and reflects their functionality before the COVID-19 pandemic. UCS has a student-to-counselor ratio of one full-time clinician for every 1,340 students and utilizes a hybrid model for in-person and virtual sessions. More so, the services provide limited counseling services of eight sessions per year.

These factors pose challenges for some students who try to utilize UCS as a mental health resource.

When Marvens Belidor, a political science major from Queens, New York, was a freshman, he reached out to UCS during the fall and spring semesters. Belidor contacted the phone number and emails listed on the website. 

Now a junior, he has yet to receive an actual response from the counseling services.

“Because of the lack of response from the University Counseling Services, I had to go find help elsewhere,” Belidor said. “Thankfully, Howard is based in a very open and liberal city where mental health is widely accessible and cared for, so it is not difficult for students to find off-campus counseling, especially at low or no cost. But for Howard, I would not recommend the effort or the try.”

Dr. Marcus Hummings, the Interim Executive Director of University Counseling Services, attributed concerns like Belidor’s to the staffing issues. 

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Hummings said the services has a staff of nine full-time clinicians, two part-time clinicians, and two administrative support staff to support the university’s total enrollment of over 12,000 students.

The counseling services currently have a student-to-counselor ratio of one full-time clinician for every 1,340 students. 

Dr. Marcus Hotelling, the president of the Association of University and Counseling Center Directors, says the student-to-counselor ratio within Howard’s UCS is low.

“Even by outdated measures, a ratio of one counselor for every 1,500 students would not be enough. Most larger state schools are at one to 1,000, and smaller schools are closer to one to 500 or less,” Hotelling said.

As a result, students who wish to access mental health services struggle with contacting staff as the UCS website lists staff members who no longer work within UCS. 

“Due to high staff turnover, including former staff that updated our website, we have not updated our website as frequently as we would like…we work diligently to train staff members to work on our website and position ourselves to make the regular changes needed to keep the university community as up-to-date about our staff and services as possible,” Hummings said.

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Trying to get into contact was hard because the only real source of information was the Howard University website, which we know is severely outdated. So, it felt like I was reaching out to unused emails,” Belidor said.

This, coupled with long wait times for services, has discouraged some students from seeking help.

Conrad Palmer, a junior computer information systems major from New Jersey, felt discouraged from accessing the counseling services due to wait times of up to three weeks.

“Overall, it is a long process,” Palmer said. “When it comes to mental health, that should be a streamlined process because you do not know how urgent the accommodations people need are.”

Hummings attributed the long wait times to the number of staff members and a rise in demand for mental health services following the pandemic. 

“The increased need for mental health services, significantly higher post-pandemic student utilization, and influxes of demands for services at the beginning and end of the semesters have affected student wait times,” Hummings said.

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The process to begin services with UCS starts with students scheduling a virtual intake consultation through Microsoft Teams. The initial intake appointment occurs within 10 days of a student requesting services. After the initial consultation, the intake interviewer follows up with students within one to three business days, as stated on the UCS website.

“The wait time initially when I was trying to get a counselor was a little bit longer than I had anticipated. I had to wait like two to three weeks initially to get matched with a counselor,” Fleurancois said, recalling her first-semester encounter with UCS.

Following Fleurancois’ intake, it took approximately a week and a half to schedule an appointment and to begin speaking with her matched counselor. 

According to Hummings, the estimated wait times stated on the UCS website reflect wait times before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic estimates “may not always reflect the significantly higher post-pandemic student utilization and the resultant impact on our service provision,” he said.

To address the accessibility of mental health services at Howard, the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs said over the last year UCS has successfully brought on three full-time clinicians and one part-time clinician. Looking ahead UCS intends to hire one part-time psychologist and one psychiatrist.

“The augmentation of staffing depends upon UCS’s routine assessments of its staffing needs, communication of those needs to university leadership, and collaboration with the HU administration to address those needs,” Hummings added. 

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Misha Cornelius, the Director of Public Relations said the counseling services are “in the process of identifying and pursuing grant funding opportunities to bolster its existing staff and facilitate the addition of more clinicians to expand support services.”

UCS advertises new job opportunities on the university’s website, job boards and academic portals, and launches partnerships with professional counseling organizations to further their recruitment efforts, Cornelius added.

Larry Marks, a staff psychologist at the University of Central Florida, said that clients and clinicians can cultivate “strong working relationships” through online meetings. 

“Many individuals do have a preference for and feel more comfortable with meeting with their mental health provider in person. Traditional in-person counseling avoids the downsides of being online. Some people feel the interpersonal energy and connection is stronger in person. Being in-person does allow for picking up more non-verbal communication, which can facilitate communication,” Marks said.

Fleurancois attended virtual sessions during her first semester of counseling. However, she was granted the opportunity to participate in one in-person group therapy session when she utilized UCS while grieving her friend’s death. When Fleurancois reflected on her experience with both counseling formats, she expressed a preference for in-person sessions. 

“I would have preferred my sessions to be in-person because it’s a more personal environment,” Fleurancois said. “When you’re sitting there facing someone, you feel obligated to say something versus sitting behind a screen where you can go quiet or not be your most vulnerable self.”

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Cornelius said the type of services offered to students depends on numerous factors such as “standards of care, student preferences, student availability, student accessibility, and health and safety guidelines.

“Each treatment recommendation is made with careful consideration of these factors,” she added.

The in-person group therapy session gave Fleurancois and other participants a supportive space to express their grief together.

“The people, like myself, who were directly affected, got to be in an area together where we could lean on each other but also let everything go, knowing we were all in the same headspace,” Fleurancois said.

Regarding virtual services, Marks recognized the increase in accessibility that virtual services provide. 

“Virtual counseling, or tele-mental health, has allowed counseling to become much more accessible to individuals at a distance. With the post-pandemic rise in online/virtual counseling, there is clearly a demand for this type of counseling,” he said. 

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University Policies Across Institutions 

Over time, the increased utilization of services caused UCS to implement a short-term therapy model for counseling sessions. The therapy model offers students eight sessions per year to ensure that services can be provided to the increased number of students using them. 

In addition to the short-term sessions offered by UCS, students within the College of Fine Arts have the opportunity to speak with a dedicated onsite psychologist located in their school. The remaining 13 schools and colleges do not have a dedicated onsite psychologist.  

Jada Brooks, a sophomore interior design major from Baltimore, found the fine arts therapy services with the onsite psychologist Dr. Ballard quick and accessible. “Whenever I need [Dr. Ballard], I can call him and set up an appointment or go down to his office,” she said. 

After an incident with a professor left Brooks in tears, she was able to meet with Ballard immediately. 

“The first time I talked to Dr. Ballard, I was in there crying because a professor had reported me for being disrespectful,” Brooks said. “I am in no way, shape, or form disrespectful, so for that professor to take who I am and try to paint me out as a bad person to the entire department felt overwhelming.” 

Brooks spoke positively about her time with Ballard, “I really enjoy my time with Dr. Ballard. He’s a really great therapist who conducts his sessions in a way that you can digest, understand and take it throughout life.”

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Following the incident with her professor, Ballard provided Brooks with the “tools on how to navigate interactions with the professor and her life” as a college student she added. 

The short-term therapy model forced Fleurancois to strategically schedule her allotted eight counseling sessions. 

“I spaced my sessions out … because I knew it was only eight sessions, if I were to [attend a session] every week, that’s not enough,” she said. 

Throughout her eight sessions, Fleurancois was able to develop a strong relationship with her counselor. 

“They were really, really there for me through everything. The counselor I was matched with, they were very attentive, made sure to address my needs… I really enjoyed the relationship that we built,” Fleurancois added. 

However, leaving her counselor proved challenging for Fleurancois due to the strong bond the two developed. “It was tough for me at the end. I’ll be honest, I cried with [my counselor] on my last session,” she said. “I was like what am I supposed to do now?  I’ve been meeting with you every week, letting all this stuff out, talking to you and addressing things, but now I can’t talk to you anymore.”

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Though Hotelling believes short-term models work, more sessions have an increased effectiveness rate for students. 

“Most college students receive, on average, about six to seven sessions. But when you break down the numbers, you have a lot of students that only come in one to two times and a lot of students that come in 15+ times, so the number is misleading. On average, yes, a short-term therapy model is enough. But research shows that 12-15 sessions tend to have the best long-term efficacy in addressing mental health concerns,” he said.

Marks agreed that the university’s short-term therapy policy aligns with prevalent practices among colleges and universities experiencing a rising demand for services. 

“Brief or short-term counseling of 6 to 12 sessions has become increasingly common in college and university counseling centers as a way to meet the increasing demand for services,” Marks said. “Students can expect to make progress on most of their treatment goals through brief counseling. For some more severe or complex issues, longer-term counseling may be recommended.”

As an alternative, students who wish to continue receiving long-term treatment are referred to long-term service providers, Hummings said. 

Once Fleurancois completed her sessions for the year, she was referred to an outside, long-term service provider by UCS.

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Although Fleurancois felt she benefited from the eight sessions, she believed “the 8 sessions [were] a really harsh limit.” 

Kennedi Roberts, a senior honors psychology major from Minneapolis, also pursued outside therapy because she felt the limited sessions provided by UCS would not be sufficient and she needed something more long-term.

 “I haven’t done HU counseling, but I just decided to do it outside of Howard because I know that you can only have so many sessions,” Roberts said. “That was something I went into knowing I needed something more long-term. I wanted more and somebody I could be with long-term and do deeper work with because eight sessions a year is not that much.”

In comparison, other universities offer more frequent services. According to their website, American University allows students six to eight individual therapy sessions per week and unlimited group therapy sessions. Additionally, American University offers a personalized wellness platform, You@American, offering self-checks and evaluations for students. 

According to Morgan State University’s website, the university also adopts a short-term session model for counseling services, allowing students a maximum of 12 individual sessions per academic year. Morgan State also offers students unlimited group therapy sessions. 

To ensure accessibility and immediate support, Morgan State University also extends its services with same-day consultations available on a first-come, first-served basis, and walk-in appointments are readily available for emergencies or first-time clients.

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North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s (NCAT) counseling services surpass the standard short-term session model utilized by colleges and universities, offering students unlimited sessions to address their specific areas of concern.  

At NCAT, students can engage in individual, group and couples counseling sessions. NCAT also provides psychiatric services through the student health center. 

Tamilore Oshikanlu and Khiara Davis-Howard/The Hilltop

Resources for Off-Campus Students

Howard students who live off campus face challenges accessing UCS services due to licensing laws. These laws mandate that students be physically present in Washington, D.C., to attend appointments with UCS. 

“Once you’re out of D.C. you can’t utilize them anymore. I’m from Massachusetts, so even though I’m a Howard student I can’t utilize UCS back home. Going home over the breaks, I still needed someone to talk to because I was still going through stuff, but I had to find someone else,” Fleurancois said.

Fleurancois shared that she wishes the university offered inexpensive alternatives for students who need longer treatment.

“Even with regular therapists, if there was a way through the school to cover costs and students pay a $10 copay or something like that. We get the funding for so much else, why can’t they put it towards our mental health?” Fleurancois asked.

Howard’s insurance offers its students studying abroad or living remotely the convenience of utilizing the HealthiestYou virtual platform, which provides teletherapy and telehealth services. However, students with private insurance might not have access to telehealth services under their coverage.  

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Fleurancois was not informed of HealthiestYou during her time with UCS. Looking back, “I definitely would have pursued this option if I knew it was a thing, but it hadn’t been offered to me after the completion of my eight sessions,” she added.

Improvements Students Hope to See 

Moving forward, Fleurancois hopes professors respond positively to the mental health needs of their students. 

After Fleurancois’s friend died, she missed assignments in her classes. Fleurancois’ counselor wrote a letter to her professor, requesting she be granted an extension on the missed assignments. 

Fleurancois’ professor denied the request from the UCS counselor and when Fleurancois asked for an explanation, she felt dissatisfied with her professor’s response. 

“There was not much reasoning. Just the fact that I just did not complete [the assignments] in the time they were due,” Fleurancois said. “Even with a letter being sent and circumstances being explained to the professor, [an extension] still was not granted. I ultimately had to get [an] incomplete in the class, because I just wasn’t in the state of mind to perform to the best of my abilities in the class, and my professor wasn’t the most understanding.” 

Fleurancois’ experience with her professor caused her to recognize an issue in the power dynamic between professors and university mental health services. 

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“There needs to be a middle ground that’s met between professors and students. At the end of the day, the truth is that professors are the head of the classroom,” she said.

Fleurancois believes UCS should take a more proactive approach by advertising mental health resources during Bison Week. She wasn’t aware the counseling services were a resource upon first arriving on campus. Instead, she had to conduct her own research about Howard’s counseling services.  

“People only … look for [counseling services] when they need it, but it should be something that people know is readily available … not when they’re in the midst of a crisis,” she added.

UCS worked to provide students with information on mental health resources through on-campus events. In the spring of 2023, the Division of Student Affairs presented the first “BWell Bison Wellness Day” on the Yard. Howard departments at the event provided information and resources available to students, faculty and staff. 

Kemuel Clarke, a junior biology major from Nassau, Bahamas, was delighted to experience Howard University’s first-ever BWell Bison Wellness Day event last semester.

Clarke saw the wellness day as a “step in the right direction towards supporting students’ mental well-being.” 

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“It was good to see that the administration sees us as more than tuition payers and appreciates the student body’s mental health. We need more days like this that alleviate the stress of being a student and allow us just to be a bison,” Clarke said.

Micah Baker, a junior political science major from Chicago, shared the same sentiments.

“We need a mental health week to get students involved. Half of the battle is students don’t know where to go. A mental health week would help students learn about the resources available,” Baker said.

At the time of publication, the university has not issued any statements regarding future Bison Wellness Days. However, the University Counseling Services attended the annual Bison Safety Fair to share more information about the available resources.

“We would like to support our students and make sure they’re aware that they have the support of mental health and counseling, and that it’s free,” Dr. Kratel Ruiz-Washington, a staff psychologist at the counseling center, said. “So we want to make sure that they know where the services are, that they have access, and how to get access to it.”

Although Fleurancois continues to grieve, the pre-medicine track student said she remains encouraged. 

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“When you are that close to a friend, and they are a part of your life so much, they just impact you in every way, but you just have to keep going and keep pushing for them because that is what they would want,” she said.

If you or someone you know is going through a mental health crisis, call 202-806-1100 for on-campus emergencies. For off-campus emergencies or emergencies outside of business hours, dial  202-345-6407 or contact 911 immediately. 

Copy edited by Diamond Hamm

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