How the mental health crisis is crushing college counseling centers

Burnout is prevalent among directors and clinicians, who are feeling the effects of heavy workloads and a lack of support.
By: | February 2, 2022
Lightfield Studios

Empowered to provide the best mental health care to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, college counseling center directors and their clinicians unfortunately are feeling trauma themselves.

According to a new study released by Mantra Health on the 2021 fall semester, around 90% say they are experiencing burnout, especially as their centers ramp up in-person sessions. The majority of clinicians and directors also say their work is being impacted.

“Over the last year college counseling centers have seen an uptick in professionals leaving the field and a smaller pool of applicants to refill their positions while the demand from students seeking treatment continues to rise,” said Dr. David Walden, Director of the Counseling Center at Hamilton College in New York. “In addition, clinicians are contending with their own personal COVID stress as they worry about their own health and the health of their family and friends. These factors have made it increasingly difficult for directors and clinicians to avoid burnout while institutions are having trouble hiring and retaining quality mental health staff.”

More than 60% say they are as tired or more tired than they were during the height of the pandemic. Last year, when Mantra conducted its State of Provider Burnout in College Counseling Centers, less than 50% said work was being impacted. That number has risen by 15% this year. And Mantra notes that the level of burnout among directors and clinicians at colleges and universities is about 12% higher than their colleagues nationwide.

Ensuring that clinicians are able to do their work well is essential in maintaining healthy campuses. But workloads have become so significant that 70% say they have no time or energy for leisure activities.

So what proposed changes would clinicians and directors say could help curb burnout? More than 50% of clinicians said reduced workload would be a start, while another 20% would like the opportunity to work from home. Around 15% would like positive feedback along with promotions or raises. An equal 36.5% of directors mentioned more vacation time and boosting staff camaraderie and personal connections. If changes are not made, institutions run the risk of losing more workers at a time when centers already are seeing increases in students reaching out for care.

“The results of this survey highlight some of the specific needs of clinicians as we enter a shift from the acute phase of the pandemic to an ongoing endemic situation,” said Dr. Harry Rockland-Miller, Director Emeritus at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “While most clinicians have benefitted from returning to the workplace, they have varying feelings around in-person clinical services. Making the distinction between being in the office versus providing in-person services is key. For clinicians to succeed, it’s critical they are recognized, appreciated, supported and feel that they are working as part of a larger community in support of a critical mission.”

How else can colleges and university leaders create more palatable work environments for directors and clinicians? The first is to simply show support and recognize the work they are doing. The second is to provide some options for remote work when possible. The third is to raise the visibility of the counseling centers and the clinicians who serve them. And fourth is to find ways to alleviate some of the workload through outside partnerships or by getting them additional help.