Santa Fe College’s counseling center has four full-time counselors and one therapy dog. But after calling all the state colleges in Florida, the center’s coordinator discovered that this is an anomaly. Out of 28 colleges, 21 don’t offer a counseling center at all. 

Illustration by Sydney Martin.

 

Atypical day for Lara Zwilling, the coordinator of Santa Fe College’s counseling center, is scheduled down to the minute. 

As a licensed mental health counselor, Zwilling has a full caseload of students—the center averages 300 to 350 visits per month—who she sees for a variety of reasons, from breaking up with a significant other to depression and anxiety.  

But as the coordinator, Zwilling, an energetic and determined woman, is responsible for managing the center’s four full-time counselors, two graduate interns and their occasional part-time line, which they have depending on funds, as well as ensuring students know the center exists.

She’s also responsible for ensuring the center improves to serve students’ needs. Three years ago, Santa Fe’s counselors became licensed therapists, due to Zwilling pressuring the college’s dean. Last year, she advocated to get liability insurance for all the counselors and the center’s therapy dog, a goldendoodle named Beau. 

Zwilling wanted to know what others schools were doing to get liability insurance. So she called their “counseling” centers, assuming that all the state and community colleges in Florida offer similar centers to Santa Fe’s, which has existed since the 1980s. 

“I found that a lot of community colleges were calling their advising centers counseling centers,” she said. “So when I called down there, I said, ‘Hey guys, so what type of mental health services do you provide?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh no, we’re not that type of counselor.’” 

She decided to investigate further. With her phone pressed tightly to her ear and a list of contact information in front of her, Zwilling called all 28 community colleges in the state of Florida.

After she finished, Zwilling said she was shocked. Only seven out of the 28 state and community colleges in Florida offered any kind of mental health care center on campus. 

“I can’t really understand,” Zwilling said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it in my opinion. Community college students have just as many complex problems.” 

 

At most community colleges in Florida, if a student is seeking mental health assistance, they have to start their journey with a phone call. However, this phone call doesn’t lead them to a in-person counseling session in an office on campus—the phone call itself is the counseling session. 

Most community colleges in Florida contract out their mental health care through a service called BayCare, a “not-for-profit health care system that connects individuals and families to a wide range of services including mental health care,” according to its website. 

In essence, BayCare is a hotline. Students can call the phone number, which will connect them with mental health care providers in their area. Most of these providers are public, and students must be able to drive themselves to the location.

“It’s more of a barrier to student access than being able to walk on campus and receive help,” Zwilling said. 

According to a 2016 survey from Wisconsin HOPE Lab—which researches post-secondary education—half of community college students in the country report mental health problems, and fewer than half of those with mental health conditions were receiving the treatment they need.

Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association, over-the-phone therapy—in place of face-to-face interaction—may work for some, but it doesn’t benefit those who need it the most. Only 31 percent reported feeling improved after a telephone counseling session, compared with 54 percent who saw a therapist in person. 

Zwilling also said that in-person counseling centers improve student retention. 

“If they have an active relationship with a counselor, that makes a big difference,” she said. “They’re motivated to get up and go to class.” 

The number for BayCare’s services is only discoverable after extensive searching through a community college’s website, leading to potential confusion for students looking for guidance.

“Nobody seems to know about our mental health services,” said Mike McKee, executive director of media and public information at Florida Gateway College, which utilizes BayCare. 

Even if students do use the service, they only get three free counseling sessions per year. To pay for more sessions, they must have health insurance, which Zwilling said is not a requirement at some community colleges such as Santa Fe. 

“I can’t really understand,” Zwilling said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it in my opinion. Community college students have just as many complex problems

Santa Fe is able to pay for its counseling services through money allocated to administrative and professional staff, but not every college is as lucky. 

Kim Pearsall, director of disability and counseling services at Polk State College, views BayCare as an improvement from what Polk State College had before, which was nothing. Though BayCare is not a physical counseling center, given the college’s small budget it’s better than no services at all. 

“I’d love to have more services on board here,” she said. “I think every college should have a center. It was the hopes and dreams of myself and my boss to put something together for students in crisis so they can talk to someone.”

She said it may be a while before Polk State College has an on-campus counseling center. 

“That would be a great goal to have, and I certainly think it’s a worthy one,” she said. “At the moment, we are one of the poorest colleges. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to have more funding to do something like that.” 

The Association for Florida Colleges (AFC) lobbies for state funding on behalf of Florida’s community colleges.

Santa Fe’s representative to the committee, Liam McClay, said the association is constantly looking for ways to provide more support for students. But “where resources become finite is where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

McCay said most schools’ budgets prioritize workforce-integration services, maintenance and construction of facilities, and faculty recruitment, leaving little money for mental health services, which can be expensive. At public universities, mental health services can be as much as $28,000 per student according to Pscyhology Today. 

But Zwilling said there is a disparity between the money allocated to state universities and the money allocated to state colleges, because universities are able to pull in more money and research. 

As Zwilling explained how the AFC lobbies for community colleges, she looked up this year’s budget numbers, which were approved in May. 

“[The AFC] advocates for our budget, which, by the way, it looks like we’re going to get slashed,” she said, trailing off in disappointment. “Wow…but universities will see a significant funding increase.” 

In an effort to make Florida’s 12 public universities “elite” institutions, state lawmakers voted in May to give an extra $232 million to those institutions, while cutting $25 million from state colleges, according to an article in the Miami Herald. 

“It stinks, because I think that community colleges have a lot to offer,” Zwilling said. “A lot of students would not have the ability to complete what they have in life if they did not get their start at a community college. … I feel like a big chunk of the community is being left out.” 

For Zwilling, the counseling center is an integral part of Santa Fe. 

“Part of our mission is open access,” she said. “We want to be open access to students, and so we would think that all of our services would be open access, including mental health care, because it certainly is for all the state universities.” 

But some state colleges don’t view on-campus mental health services as part of their mission. 

“It’s more of a university practice,” said Leigh Bailey, an academic counselor at Gulf Coast State College.

Linda Freeman, a counselor at Florida SouthWestern State College, opened the school’s counseling center in 2012. Freeman said she’s technically a contract worker, not an employee, but she has a physical office on campus, even though she’s had to move four times. 

To raise awareness for the center, Freeman tables and gives presentations on campus. She also sends constant reminders to the college’s dean to send out emails to students, notifying them that the counseling center is active. 

“I don’t know how you can have a college without a counseling center,” Freeman said. 

 

Despite her intense schedule, Zwilling is currently working to bring more attention to this issue.

“As a counselor, that’s my heart—to get out there and create a culture of care,” she said. 

As she was cold-calling state colleges, Zwilling connected with Jeannie Hoban, a counselor at Palm Beach State College. 

“She said, ‘Are you crazy?’ Did you really just call all 28 colleges?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Jeannie, I am!” Zwilling said. “We need to do something about this!” 

Together, the women have presented at state and national conferences on the lack of mental health services for community college students and the benefit of on-campus counseling services. 

“That’s what we do,” Zwilling said. “Educate, educate, educate.”

Both women hope their schools’ respective counseling centers can serve as models for other state colleges looking to expand their counseling services. At Palm Beach State, Hoban created the counseling center by employing psychology faculty part-time and hiring interns from local universities, Zwilling said. 

Santa Fe’s counseling center began in the 1980s as a career counseling center, but under the direction of Terry O’Banion, the founding dean at Santa Fe, the center began to emphasize reflection and introspection over pure instruction. 

“What is called for is a new kind of person, a person who is hardheaded enough to survive the battles that rage in academe, and yet one who is warm-hearted and deeply committed to the full development of human potential,” O’Banion wrote in a 2007 article titled, “Early Stirrings of Student Development in the Community College.” 

In other words, a counselor. 

So far, Zwilling said she and Hoban have only received positive reactions to their presentations. 

“People are blown away when they hear that statistic,” she said. 

Despite the institutional struggles she faces, Zwilling remains optimistic that on-campus counseling centers will expand to all 28 state colleges. 

“Slowly, the world is figuring it out.”  •