Justin Peligri: Combining psychology and psychiatry services in one office would benefit the student body

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

Editor's note: This is the second column in a series on mental health at GW.

Everyone knows that getting an appointment at the University Counseling Center isn’t easy.

For over a year, the UCC has been under scrutiny, to the extent that it hired a new director with expertise as both a leader and a psychologist. And the center has also offered six free sessions since September 2011, even though it’s costly for the University.

But mental health issues still persist – both at GW and across the country.

Two-thirds of college students who need mental health assistance don’t get it, and 44 percent of college students report having felt "so depressed in the past year it was difficult to function," according to Active Minds, a national organization geared toward fighting the stigma surrounding mental health on college campuses.

And the Student Health Service is also widely used for mental health care. Last semester, there were 597 visits to GW’s staff psychiatrists, according to University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard.

But if the counseling center wants to reach as many students as possible, it needs to make significant structural changes.

Any institution of higher education should always be on the lookout to make its services student-accessible. And by and large, that is the case at GW. Our bookstore is conveniently located on the same floor of the Marvin Center where students can pay their tuition bills and pick up transcripts. There are mailboxes in each residence hall, and Package Services Center promptly sends students emails when they receive packages.

But students can’t see a University psychologist and pick up anti-depressants under the same roof. And that should change.

Student Health Service – which houses GW’s three staff psychiatrists, who can prescribe medication – is located at 2141 K St. The University Counseling Center, which houses psychologists and social workers who work with students coping with issues like anxiety and depression, has offices at 2033 K St.

While this distance may seem trivial, it doesn’t make sense to send students who need medication from a psychiatrist to a different building to get a prescription: This should be something that also falls under the counseling center’s jurisdiction.

The stratification of mental health services at GW is frustrating and even discouraging. On an issue as pressing and significant as this one, which affects hundreds of GW students each day, we should take care to ensure that mental health offerings are as accessible as possible.

GW’s UCC and SHS are far from obsolete. In fact, their usage has steadily increased over the past few years, and the UCC reported a 25 percent uptick in first-time clients between the fall of 2010 and 2011.

In fact, usage was so high that The Hatchet reported Sept. 24 that waiting times to obtain a preliminary appointment at SHS were sometimes a staggering six weeks.

Granted, the delay has subsided – wait times are only about one week now, according to University Spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard – but its services are still popular.

In a culture that sometimes frowns upon those who seek help for mental illness, the fact that students use these services is reassuring. And that should drive the momentum to improve them.

Grouping psychiatrists in offices that today house only psychologists might seem like a formality. But in fact, it could be an important catalyst to getting students the mental health treatment they need.

Combining these departments is the logical thing to do – and other universities agree. Georgetown, Boston and New York universities all combine their psychologists and psychiatrists in the same office.

After there were six student suicides between 2003 and 2004 at NYU, the institution took a stand on mental health by overhauling its program, which included, among other things, keeping many services under one roof.

It’s time for GW to look toward doing the same. And the director of the counseling center, Silvio Weisner, was hired away from a college that does just this.

Nagmeh Merck, the interim director at Marymount University’s counseling center, explained to me that while its on-staff psychiatrist is technically not an employee of the counseling center, her patients share their waiting room, and she holds sessions in the center's offices. Merck believes that offering both types of mental health services under one roof is beneficial for their patients because they only have to make one stop to get the help they need.

“It is very effective, because obviously they are seamless services,” she said, adding that counselors hold weekly meetings with the psychiatrist about their shared patients.

Weisner told me in an email that psychologists at GW meet with the university psychiatrist at least once a month, or otherwise as needed.

GW has hundreds more students than Marymount, and yet, counterintuitively, GW’s interdepartmental communication is far less frequent.

Weisner should look to make changes at GW that reflect practices from his former employer by housing psychiatry and psychology services together. Doing so would streamlines the process to receive mental assistance and inevitably facilitate more communication between the departments – which can only help students.

There was another school shooting Jan. 22, this time on a college campus outside Houston. Fortunately, none of the four people hospitalized were killed, but one of the gun holders was carrying a Lone Star College ID.

This wasn’t the first school shooting conducted by a college-aged individual, nor will it be the last. It can and will happen anywhere.

In the wake of gun violence across the country, institutions from elementary schools to the federal government are considering how best to accommodate students with mental health issues.

It’s an impetus for GW to do so as well.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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