In the Midst of Mental Health Month, COD Announces Controversial Counseling Changes

COD’s plans to cut all part-time counseling positions and shift to a ‘case-management’ model raises concerns. Is the institution sacrificing access to vital mental health resources for higher completion rates?

Nick Karmia and Devin Oommen

COD administrators’ plans to remove all-part time counseling staff have created an air of uncertainty during mental health month, bringing questions from faculty and counselors about whether the college is willing to sacrifice students’ ability to access mental health resources as long as it can increase completion rates. 

The college is changing to a “case-management” model within the next two years with the objective of increasing completion rates among students.  As a result of this change, the college will eliminate all 18 part-time counseling positions. 

At a COD Board of Trustees meeting on April 27, counselors and faculty commented about the need for the college to retain its counseling staff.

Cheryl Baunbach-Caplan, a part-time counselor at COD, said college administrators did not collaborate with the counseling and advising office on this decision.

“The college wants to employ a case-management model to improve student success. But case management does not necessitate FT advisers only,” said Baunbach-Caplan. “If the college eliminates all part-time counselor positions it will cut our department’s counseling staff by more than half in full-time equivalents. We believe this is an unwise and dangerous decision when, according to the American College Health Association, over three-quarters of college students in 2022 experienced moderate to serious psychological distress.”

Christopher Miller, a professor in the communications department at COD, called on the board not to lose the part-time counselors.

“We need help. I’m imploring this board to please not lose these essential workers. I implore you to keep these counselors on campus and load this campus with mental health counselors. Please. Our students need them. I need them. So please, keep them here,” Miller said.

Danice McGrath, a part-time counselor at COD, said COD students benefit from having advising staff who are credentialed counselors who are able to provide academic, career and personal counseling.

“When does academic advising become personal counseling? It’s not black and white. It’s in the nuance of every appointment we have with students,” said Mcgrath. “And this makes perfect sense because a student’s academic life is significantly impacted by their personal life and vice versa.”

According to McGrath, undecided students at COD will need to switch advisers every time they change what they want to study under the new model the college is adopting.

Azure Thill has been teaching a variety of psychology courses for 22 years, from general psychology to child and lifespan development. During her eight years of teaching at COD, she said counseling has never been prevalent.

“Counseling has been pretty much nonexistent since I started here,” Thill said.

While working as a professor at North Central College (NCC), it was very common for Thill to take students on campus to see a mental health professional.

“I get a lot of students in my office that are talking to me about a variety of personal issues,” Thill said. “At North Central College, I practically had counseling and advising on speed dial.”

But during her time at COD, that system hasn’t proved to be so easy. Besides the 18 part-time counselors who are licensed to perform mental health services, there are also two full-time mental health counselors at COD. Those in the full-time positions are restricted to 800 appointments a year. 

“I can walk a student up to counseling and advising, and the first question is, ‘Do you have an appointment?,’” Thill said. “And at that point, so many people get turned away.”

Thill was one of many faculty who spoke out at one of the latest COD board of trustees meetings emphasizing how important counseling services are, especially to the students. At the board meeting, Thill talked about one student in her class who needed help.

“In the meeting I talked about how I sat and I waited with the student because that was a super pressing issue,” Thill said. “I was worried about the school’s liability because the threat that he made for purchasing a firearm was heard by 30 other students. So I wasn’t going to just walk away from that one because I didn’t want to see him hurt himself or him hurt anybody else.” 

From this experience, alongside many others with students with unresolved mental health issues, Thill has gained a serious lack of faith in the counseling system at COD.

“I actually stopped taking students up there because I know they’re not going to be able to seen, and then it just gets frustrating,” Thill said.

Thinking back to her time at NCC, there was far more of an extensive system in place for counseling services. With a floor full of mental health services consistently available, Thill remembers a much greater number of students given immediate care.

“They had a number of mental health counselors that were there to help students through moments of crises or with any other personal counseling,” Thill said. “I think because they just had a greater number of people on staff, there was a greater chance that somebody would be available.”

As a professor who’s been at the forefront of sitting down and hearing about a student’s struggles, she said this restructure of the counseling department is likely to sacrifice student success.

“It’s mental health awareness month right now, and I feel like it’s kind of lip service,” Thill said. “Like we care about our students’ mental health, well then provide them with support so that they can get through these crises because in many cases that mental health crisis is a barrier to their success.”

Psi Beta is a national honor society for psychology students, and COD’s chapter meets once every week to sometimes host presentations on topics like suicide and the importance of mental health awareness.

Scotty Johnston is the vice president of COD’s Psi Beta chapter, and through his experience of interacting with those going through a mental health crisis, it’s a struggle that goes far too unnoticed.

“I’m a trained dialectical behavioral therapy counselor,” Johnston said.  “One thing that was conveyed to us was that oftentimes many people who are in a crisis will suffer in silence.”

In the case-management model proposed by the college’s administration, 18 part-time counselors who are able to provide personal counseling, will be restricted to only doing academic advising.

“At least in my personal view, if more people are made aware of extra counselors and people that they can go to, then they can get the help they need,” Johnston said.

From all sources investigated by the Courier thus far, collaboration between the college’s administration and other departments hasn’t occurred in the implementation of this new counseling model.

“It is telling to me that they’re going and making a decision without really going and talking to people about it,” Thill said. “Speaking with the psychology department and trying to get their thoughts and opinions about how things should be, or even just talking to faculty in general. I mean, we’re the ones in the trenches.

“It’s quite depressing actually, because I have a lot of respect for what COD stands for. What they’ve been trying to achieve, both academically and personally through the years,” Thill added.

The Courier reached out to Provost Mark Curtis-Chavez and received a statement from College President Brian Caputo:

“As part of its ongoing commitment to student success, the College of DuPage administration is transitioning to a case management model for counseling and advising. This model, considered an industry best practice and adopted by numerous colleges and universities, will provide more resources and amplified support to COD students.”

Completion rates are the rates that students complete programs in the expected amount of time. For 2 years programs, students are expected to complete within two to three years. The current completion rate, goal completion rate, and role of advisers in increasing completion rates is unknown.