Counseling Center steps up efforts following deaths

Freshmen should not be surprised to see heavy promotion of the University Counseling Center during Colonial Inauguration. After five students died last year -two by suicide – GW is stepping up its efforts to raise mental health awareness on campus.

“Students will say, ‘That’s not me, it won’t happen to me,’ but they need to know which services are available so that they can get help when they need it,” said Dianne DePalma, the Counseling Center’s director.

The center is increasing the visibility of counseling services during CI and Welcome Week with information booths and posters.

Following each death last school year, University officials urged students affected by the loss to talk to a counselor on a walk-in basis, which allows people to seek help immediately without an appointment. Counselors also held sessions for groups of students grieving over the death of one of their friends.

Any student that is feeling depressed or just needs to talk to someone can set up a 50-minute appointment with one of the center’s 12 staff members free of charge. The center’s suite is located several blocks from campus at 2033 K St. N.W. A student that still needs counseling after several individual appointments will be referred to a private psychologist.

The Counseling Center also has a Web site –
www.gwired.gwu.edu/counsel – where students can take online tests to assess their mental health.

Universities throughout the nation deal with multiple student deaths each year. Many of them are suicides, which is the second leading cause of death among college-age students.

New York University, a college similar to GW both physically and socioeconomically, saw four student deaths last school year. Three of the deaths were determined to be suicides, said Paul Grayson, director of NYU’s Counseling Services.

He said the school took steps similar to GW’s to try to address the deaths and help students cope with loss.

“Immediately afterwards there were counselors in the residences – including evenings and weekends,” Grayson wrote in an e-mail. “In addition, Plexiglas barriers were placed above the railings in the library from where two students jumped. There was also a memorial service for all campus persons who died this year – not just the students who took their lives.”

Westley Harrell, an NYU sophomore who lived in the same building as one of the students who committed suicide, said the death came as a surprise.

“I was doing laundry with him the day before,” Harrell said. “He was singing and seemed happy, but then the next day he killed himself.”

Bob Wilson, assistant director of GW’s Counseling Center, said students can have a difficult time coping with peers’ deaths because they often happen unexpectedly.

“Students don’t get ill and die slowly,” Wilson said. “They’re young and vigorous, and they’re killed on the basis of tragedy, so it’s a real jolt to the system.”

Some students suggested that living in an urban environment causes undue stress that may lead to suicide.

“Schools like ours don’t promote a campus-like environment, and there is no unity or school pride, so kids feel like they have to do things like that,” Harrell said of NYU and GW. “There is no sense of community, and because of that I feel like these are the type of actions that can result.”

But Grayson said he does not think urban atmospheres contributed to the suicides.

NYU will place counselors in the residences this fall, Grayson said, extending the counseling service’s hours and having a phone number that directs students to appropriate counseling resources.

Similarly, GW has a “Call-A-Counselor” service that takes calls from students, parents and faculty members who have questions about counseling resources. The service’s phone number is (202) 994-5300.

GW’s branch of the Suicide Prevention Action Network, created in fall 2003, will work closely with the counseling center to prevent suicides and create awareness about depression.

With a membership of 80 students, the group hopes to inform the GW community about available counseling resources and how to recognize signs of mental illness, said Lisa Cahan, the group’s president.

“A lot of people don’t believe in mental illness. They see someone sad or depressed and just say to ‘snap out of it,'” Cahan said.

The Counseling Center also promotes its “Living with Loss” group, which is comprised of students that have lost a family member or friend.

“Primarily the type of loss a student comes in about is a family member; however, this upcoming year there may be more students coming in for the loss of a friend,”

DePalma said.

Senior Lindsey Ward, whose mother died when she was 12, decided to join the “Living with Loss” group in the spring to help her deal with her father getting remarried.

“At first I was really hesitant to join the group,” Ward said. “I thought it would be like the scenes in ‘Fight Club’ with a bunch of people sitting around and crying, but it is actually really cool.”

Ward received individual counseling at the center but was referred to the group after ten individual sessions.

“I liked the group a lot,” Ward said. “It really helped to talk to other people who had the same experience.”

There are several other Counseling Center-created groups, including a women’s support group, a graduate student group and a personal growth group directed toward undergraduates.

“Students do not feel alone with other students who truly understand what is going on and support their struggle,” DePalma said.

She added that incoming freshmen that have had prior problems with depression or eating disorders should find a therapist in D.C. to help them with the many transitions that occur during the first year of college.

“We are a short-term counseling facility,” she said, “but we can help students try and find someone for the long term in the District, usually within walking distance of campus.”

-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.

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