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This story was originally published in early May in “Well-being,” the second issue of the Talisman magazine.

For Shelbyville junior Courtney Thompson, mental illness initially manifested itself in little ways.

Once as a sophomore in high school, she was assembling a nightstand for her mom’s new house. Usually adept at building projects, she couldn’t understand why this one was causing her so much trouble. At some point, a broken part triggered a panic attack. She became hysterical and broke another piece.

At other times during high school, she would sometimes cry in class when she became overwhelmed.

“It seems so silly now,” she said, reflecting on the incident.

In Fall 2014, Thompson arrived as a freshman at WKU eager to begin college. She had always loved school and was excited to start classes and begin a new chapter of her life away from home. She quickly made friends and adapted to schoolwork, but “something was still off,” she said.

Though her parents and friends encouraged her to seek counseling, she always talked herself out of it.

“I always thought people had it way worse than me,” she said.

Finally, in the spring semester of her freshman year, she made her first appointment at WKU’s Counseling and Testing Center.

She attended counseling once a week for a year and a half until last semester when her counselor, Brian Lee, scheduled her less frequently.

“Not that I don’t need to be seen every week, but it was easier for his schedule to see new people if I would be seen every few weeks,” Thompson said. “It just sort of happened. We didn’t really talk about it.”

She soon learned from her counselor that these lapses between appointments were due to the center’s recent loss of four counselors — two due to the elimination of the predoctoral intern program after a round of budget cuts.

Outcome-based funding

In Gov. Matt Bevin’s first State of the Commonwealth Address in Frankfort on Jan. 26, 2016, he promised to divert higher education funding to help save Kentucky’s “ailing” pension system. According to a study published in 2016 by S&P Global Market Intelligence, Kentucky does have the worst-funded pension system in the country. However, some have questioned these dramatic cuts to higher education in the context of increased state revenue.

“As the overall economy improved, Kentucky is one of only three states, along with Arkansas and Vermont, to cut higher education funding for the past two years in a row,” said Linda Blackford in a May 19, 2016 Kentucky.com article.

“It was difficult but understandable that universities would lose state funds during the Great Recession,” Ransdell said in his State Budget Update on February 25, 2016. “But now, as state revenues are growing, I was shocked to learn last month that instead of investing in higher education, the proposed state budget would deliver higher education its largest budget cut in recent history.”

In order to do this, he promised to dedicate post-secondary education funding to what he called “outcome-based funding” — funding programs that are more likely to result in employment. His argument was that if taxpayer money is going to be used for education, it should be allocated based on each university’s ability to produce students who can practically secure jobs.

“The net result of putting public tax dollars into education is to ensure that we are actually graduating people who can go into the workforce and get out of their parents’ basement among other things,” Bevin said during his address.

The 2016-2018 Executive Budget, issued on Jan. 26, 2016, proposed a 4.5 percent cut to higher education effective immediately and a 9 percent cut within the next two years — a measure which University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto later called “draconian” before a House budget subcommittee on Feb. 11, 2016, according to an April 11, 2016 article from the Courier-Journal.

The budget also proposed that beginning in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, state universities will be allocated money from Kentucky’s general fund based on “performance criteria.” The budget did not specify what these criteria would be, but that they would be “developed in collaboration with the leadership of state universities.”

Capilouto also expressed concern before the House budget subcommittee about the fact that the Bevin administration has yet to define the standards of his proposed “performance-based funding,” stated the April 11, 2016 Courier-Journal article.

“[Performance-based funding] needs to be crafted transparently and carefully,” he said. “Making up the rules in the middle of the game is akin to building an airplane while you’re trying to fly.”

Bevin may have intended to incentivize stronger, more “outcome-based” academic programs, but the actual consequences on schools like WKU cut much deeper.

Dispensible expenditures

On April 27, 2016, WKU announced the 2017 fiscal year budget reduction plan to accommodate the $6 million decrease in its budget — $3.3 million of which was due to the state’s budget cuts. It included a 4.5 percent tuition increase, the consolidation of the Alive Center and Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, and the elimination of the Counseling and Testing Center’s predoctoral intern program, among other money-saving measures.

The predoctoral intern program provided two paid internship positions for predoctoral students, usually from out of state, to train and gain counseling experience.

Karl Laves, associate director of the Counseling and Testing Center, was a predoctoral intern himself before earning his doctorate and said that the program benefits both students and the center. The interns gain training and experience, while the counseling center gains two new staff members — or “fresh blood,” as he calls it.

Laves said the university had anticipated the cuts and asked departments to send plans. He also said programs like the predoctoral internship program are often the first to go because eliminating temporary positions are preferable to eliminating the positions of full or part-time employees.

Laves, who has worked at the center since 1991, has seen his fair share of budget cuts.

“As long as I’ve been here, oh, I’ve seen worse,” Laves said. “There was a budget cut within a year of my coming here, and people who had worked here 10 years were just told, ‘Well, your job’s gone.’”

After losing the predoctoral interns, two full-time staff members left the Counseling and Testing Center. In early August, Debra Crisp, one of the full-time counselors who also trained the pre-doctoral interns, took a position at another university.

Two weeks later, Todd Noffsinger, another full-time counselor, took a position as the interim director/supervisor of the Talley Family Counseling Center, a training center for graduate students within the department of Counseling and Student Affairs at WKU that offers free counseling for WKU students and Bowling Green community members.

This meant the number of counselors in the center was reduced from eight to four. Laves said the center anticipated everyone on staff taking a few more clients a week to compensate for the loss of the predoctoral interns but could not have prepared for its counseling staff being reduced by half on such short notice.

“In the 20 some odd years that I’ve been here, I saw more clients last semester than any other semester, “ he said. “Of course I did. We were short four [counselors].”

The average full-time college counselor sees 25 clients a week, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Centers Directors’ 2015 annual survey. With the pre-doctoral interns, Laves said each counselor saw an average of 18 to 20 clients a week, leaving staff members more time for mental health advocacy and outreach programs.

During the fall of 2016, counselors at the center often saw 30 or more clients a week.

This meant some of its clients faced longer wait times and difficulty securing appointments. Courtney Thompson, a client at the center since the second semester of her freshman year, was one such student.

“There’s a lot of different things that we work on in my sessions, so sometimes if we have a session every other week, I have to pick and choose which issues I want to talk about,” Thompson said.

Laves said that though a two to four week wait is normal at a public clinical counseling practice, he believes universities have a responsibility to provide efficient health services to their students.

“[College life] is more intense than being out in the community, “ Laves said. “Two weeks is a long time for a college student. You can get way behind in two weeks.”

difficulty securing appointments. Courtney Thompson, a client at the center since the second semester of her freshman year, was one such student.

“There’s a lot of different things that we work on in my sessions, so sometimes if we have a session every other week, I have to pick and choose which issues I want to talk about,” Thompson said.

Laves said that though a two to four week wait is normal at a public clinical counseling practice, he believes universities have a responsibility to provide efficient health services to their students.

“[College life] is more intense than being out in the community, “ Laves said. “Two weeks is a long time for a college student. You can get way behind in two weeks.”

Essential services

Laves has heard polarized opinions from fellow WKU staff members about whether funding the center is necessary. Every year, he is approached by people who say that the center is understaffed, while others say they don’t understand why the university funds its services.

Though he said he understands this opposition, he sees counseling as an essential service for students.

“Some of us think if you’re going to bring 18 to 24 year olds in large batches and stick them in small residence halls and give them 15 hours a week of college work — boy, you might want to give them a recreation center,” Laves said. “You might want to give them food service, right?”

Moreover, Laves said he feels that a college counseling staff is better equipped to handle the unique struggles of college students.

“I would argue we’re better than anything in the community because all of us have dedicated our profession to the unique challenges, struggles and developmental issues of college students,” Laves said.

This is something Thompson has experienced personally. Knowing that she’s a sociology major, her counselor often connects her sessions to social and psychological theories with which she’s familiar from her classes. This helps her look at her own problems from a more objective, scientific perspective, rather than blaming herself, she said.

The Counseling and Testing Center is also free to students after a one-time payment of $20. This is important, Laves said, because it frees students from the “factory approach” of insurance-mandated sessions and checklists.

“Here, you’re gonna get someone who’s gonna sit down and say, ‘Who are you?,’” Laves said. “Tell me who you are. Let’s explore. Let’s get deep. Let’s get rid of the checklist. Get rid of the ‘just say no’ or ‘put a rubber band on your wrist.’”

Patricia Satterwhite is a graduate intern who provides counseling at the center. Her enthusiasm about counseling college students is a testament to this point.

“I love it,” Satterwhite said. “I honor students coming in and trusting us to talk about whatever emotional, overwhelming challenges they’re having. It’s beautiful. It’s an honor … to be a part of someone’s healing. I’m very, very thankful.”

Funding fluctuation

On Sep. 22, 2016, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Bevin overstepped his authority by cutting Kentucky’s higher education budget in the middle of the fiscal term. Theoretically, this means WKU will receive $1.49 million in one-time funding back. WKU has not released how it plans to allot this money.

Because the ruling came after the cuts had already been implemented, Laves said the Counseling and Testing Center staff does not expect any of the returned state funding to trickle back down to the center or any other programs that received cuts. However, he said the center would like to eventually reinstate the predoctoral intern program.

“It’ll probably be a couple of years,” Laves said. “There’ll be another election, a different governor.”

However, reinstating the predoctoral program might not come so soon. WKU will need $6.5 million to balance the budget by the fiscal year end in June, according to an email sent by President Ransdell on March 2, 2017. This means faculty and staff at WKU can expect another round of cuts and potential tuition increases.

A new bill which proposes a new system of “outcome-based funding,” is now making its way through the state legislature. According to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, SB 153 would phase in a system in which 35 percent of funding is based on degree production, another 35 percent is based on the number of credit hours each campus awards and a final 30 percent would be allocated to finance campus services.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty in what lies ahead for Kentucky’s public universities given these dynamics,” Ransdell said in an email of these impending measures.

In the meantime, the center is busy interviewing candidates for its two open positions, which are expected to be filled by fall 2017. Thompson has begun directing her energy and goals to paying forward the care she has received. She has recently been involved in the Bowling Green Fairness campaign and her ultimate goal is to work for a nonprofit — hopefully one that works with children who have mental illnesses.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have anyone to relate to about anxiety and depression,” she said. “[I want to give] kids space to work on their problems with others who feel the same way.”

 

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