Student-run mental health clinic sees room to grow

by Sarah Ferris

Media Credit: Jordan Emont | Photo Editor

Correction appended

Tucked in a parking lot along 20th Street, a student-run clinic, visible only by a small blue awning bearing its name, has quietly pulled in patients for 15 years.

But this fall, director of the Professional Psychology Program's clinical training, James Hansell, said it has seen a 10 percent uptick in appointments, coinciding with escalating demand at nearby private practices and GW’s two main health centers, neither of which serve patients long term.

Patients have scheduled about 800 appointments with the graduate student-run clinic this month, 50 percent of which were students.

“We’re not sure about why this has increased, but possibly because of our greater visibility on campus,” Hansell, who started at GW this January, said. He added that with new leadership, intensified outreach around GW and Foggy Bottom and a fresh crop of students, Hansell says the clinic and the program are on an upswing.

Driving the increase, postdoctoral student Andrew Moon said, is the student-run center’s new ties with campus offices like Student Health Service and the University Counseling Center to increase referrals for students needing long-term help. The more than 100-student program is housed in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Both GW facilities have seen more appointments this fall, with SHS reporting a 40 percent increase over the last year. Senior Associate Dean Mark Levine, who oversees wellness issues, said earlier this year that the increase is pushed by a greater number of students who come to college already diagnosed with mental illness.

Several students have reported wait times of more than a month at the University counseling arms, though GW has been bulking up its staffing at the UCC. The University also put aside $40,000 to make up lost revenue at the UCC this fall so it could continue offering six free sessions to all students.

The UCC brought on a new director last month, Silvio Weisner, who said he plans to move forward with the University’s first committee to include representatives from all campus mental health offices to up communication and referrals.

Moon, who oversees graduate students' work with patients, said the campus buzz about mental health has attracted more attention to the center, which charges students based on what they can afford and pledges never to turn away someone who cannot pay.

“This program isn’t new by any means, but I think word has finally spread that we’re an option,” Moon said, adding that word of mouth and outreach to community partners has been key. “We feel like our name is out there a little more, so we’re seeing an increase, which we appreciate and we need.”

The influx of patients at the Professional Psychology Program has prompted staff to reexamine its program offerings, which include individual counseling, couples therapy, psychological testing and group support.

The center offers group programs on topics like interpersonal skills and bereavement, and it recently added a transgender group and a women’s group – though both of the newer offerings have just a few members each.

Now, with increased demand and eager incoming students, staff say time is ripe for the program to expand its lineup. Moon said graduate students in the program come to him almost daily with new ideas like groups for parents, older adults and student-athletes.

A majority of groups are still stuck – “ready to go, just waiting for clients to come in,” with just one or two people expressing interest so far, Moon said.

One of his main focuses this fall is creating a new group focusing on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues. With the help of graduate student Melissa Hoffman, Moon is looking to grow interest around the University and community. He has reached out to the University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the LGBT Resource Center to gauge and ultimately fuel interest in the group.

He said he is helping to create this specific support group because people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual may have different experiences and struggles that straight people have difficulty relating to.

“Straight people don’t usually have that coming-out process. Their lives aren’t usually as politicized. There are a lot of things that separate this group specifically,” Moon said.

But the future of the group programs depends on the rush of new clients this fall, and whether they want to seek out this second form of treatment.

Moon said he is optimistic that new clients this fall will translate to referrals for groups in the next few weeks as students pick out which groups their clients may be suited for. He said by now, in-house clinicians will have “had time to get to know the needs of their clients.”

Hoffman and Moon said group programs are becoming a national trend, serving as an efficient way to treat more patients at the same time. The program has a waitlist of about four weeks for individual appointments.

Being in a group, Hoffman said, is like creating a laboratory environment for clients to build confidence while testing out techniques.

The student program has grown more competitive academically, with a 15 percent rise in average GRE scores and 13 percent in GPA since the program started. Last fall, it received more than 400 applications to join and ultimately offered positions in the program to about 35 students.

This article was updated Nov. 1 2012 to reflect the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that James Hansell was the Professional Psychology Program's director. He is the director of their clinical training. The Hatchet also reported that the program's comprised 30 students. Thirty students are offered admission each year, but the total program is more than 100 students.

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