NAU counseling services in demand

Flagstaff, AZ – As Arizona legislators work out a plan for next fiscal year, universities are preparing for big cuts. And that's led to a sometimes fierce debate over which university programs are most essential to students. At Northern Arizona University some have proposed cutting counseling, at a time when those services have never been more in demand. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this report.

At NAU's latest budget forum President John Haeger fielded several suggestions from students and faculty like this one:

STAFF: I understand the need in university settings for counseling but I do not feel it is the core mission of this university to be about health and wellness. Our mission is educating. It is teaching students in the classroom.

Haeger responded by saying there are many people on campus who take on the role of teacher, including coaches, advisors and counselors.

HAEGER: We accept more and more students at the university they come from very diverse backgrounds they come with many issues and the Northern Illinois and the Virginia Techs have learned very hard lessons when you don't have a full range of faculty as well as other professionals to deal with an undergraduate institution (applause).

After the Virginia Tech incident in which a student killed 32 people including himself, that university spent about 10 million dollars on safety improvements like hiring additional counselors.

GUNN: The tragedy at Virginia Tech certainly gave all campuses across the country a wake up call.

Christopher Gunn directs NAU's Counseling and Testing Center.

GUNN: I've heard some call it a 911 the September 11th for college campuses for mental health.

Gunn says the university has plans for both preventing and responding to a crisis. They responded to three student deaths last semester alone.

But Gunn would actually like more staff to work on the prevention side. With the hiring freeze they will lose a psychologist who's retiring at the end of the year.

And lately, there have been a lot more students seeking their help. Gunn says in the last few months he's noticed the state of the economy has students stressed. Whether they're graduating seniors looking for jobs or underclassmen worried about paying their tuition

GUNN: We are seeing students coming in and talking about the amount of the stress they're under from having to work part time and full time jobs. Their parents some of them are losing jobs. Decisions are having to be made about whether their parents can continue to support or help them through college. Here at Northern Arizona University a great percentage of our students pay for themselves so I think we're going to see more of that general stress.

In the last five years Gunn's seen a significant increase in the number of suicide calls. He says they've gone up in proportion to enrollment. But their staff numbers have stayed the same.

In recent months NAU's Employee Assistance and Wellness office has also received more calls. Director Betsy Kerr says they hear from employees stressed about their jobs, worried about potential lay offs, overwhelmed by their increased responsibilities and concerned for their colleagues.

KERR: What we've noticed the most is an increase in a sense of urgency when people call. We've had more people wanting to come in. As their stress levels go up worry increases about the future and financial difficulties, what we find is something that was tolerable before now is not tolerable.

In response Kerr says they're offering seminars to faculty and staff like "Bouncing Back During Tough Economic Times."

KERR: How we respond makes a difference. We can either kind of give up, put up with it, be more resilient, or we can thrive.

Kerr's worked at NAU for more than 25 years. And she says nothing compares to what the campus is facing now. Kerr says that health and wellness programs play an important, if unseen, role in helping faculty meet the university's core mission of teaching students.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.