Report on student deaths: Counseling Center inadequately funded

The University Counseling Center does not have enough resources to address students’ mental health needs, according to an investigation of GW’s response to student deaths.

The finding was one of many included in a report compiled by a 21-member commission charged with analyzing the University’s response to student deaths. Six GW students have died since December 2003, three by suicide.

Among other recommendations, the report calls for an increase in counseling center funds that would partly be used to hire additional staff.

University officials said they hope the changes will allow for more hours of counseling each week and a better ability to respond to student crises.

“I have no doubt we will enhance the staff at the counseling center,” said Dean of Students Linda Donnels, who organized the commission following five student deaths in the last academic year. According to the report, the counseling center has already increased the amount of hours its psychiatrist is available each week, from nine to 20.

“What I wanted to do with the commission is to look at what we did, how we did, and do things better,” Donnels added.

In interviewing other colleges, the report found that GW’s counseling center has one counselor for every 2,614 students, while similarly sized New York University has one counselor for every 1,520 students.

The 55-page report, which can be viewed in its entirety on the Web at www.gwhatchet.com, also cites slow response time by counselors as a main problem facing the University.

“(It took a) long time for counselors to arrive on site, and staff wished they knew more about what to do in the interim,” the report said. “Counselors were great once they got there.”

The final conclusions of the commission, which includes a recommended procedure for responding to student deaths, call for a crisis response coordinator to direct the actions of GW officials. During this period, the University would provide counseling to students or groups who are grieving or “at risk” of committing suicide.

Donnels, who said she already acts as a crisis response coordinator, did not know how much the recommended changes would cost, but added that they will be implemented soon.

“It’s a high priority. I think that, not knowing my price tag, (many changes will occur) within the year,” she said.

In addition to expanding counseling center staff and hours, increased training of faculty and staff members is needed, the report stated.

“(Community Facilitators) said they got no training on suicide assessment or referrals,” the report said, adding that faculty members were not contacted about any of the deaths until three days after they occurred.

The report recommended that staff members who have direct contact with students every week, should undergo “gatekeeper” training to spot students who are at a high risk for suicides. Two of last year’s five deaths were confirmed suicides; earlier this month, a female sophomore died after jumping from her off-campus apartment.

Of the 66 deaths in the past 12 academic years, 43 were males and 23 were females, the report said.

Donnels said she is planning to present a one-page executive summary to University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg next week and added that her department was not planning to release the entire report to the public. The Hatchet independently obtained a full copy of the report earlier this week.

The commission also investigated the way other schools handle such issues.

“Each school we interviewed talked about the importance and value of the immediate responders,” the report said. “One of the most interesting trends that came out of the interviews (with other schools) was … the value of having campus ministry staff or chaplains involved as resources after a student dies.”

Though GW does not have chaplains on its payroll, it “does link people to chaplains of their faith when they ask,” Donnels said.

Donnels said she began improving the University’s procedures during the summer.

“I didn’t wait for the report, I have started things … rearranging clinical services, I have people on call, so that you have more depth with it,” Donnels said.

Diane DePalma, the counseling center’s director, said she has already implemented changes in her department.

“After the events of last year, we have reviewed and tightened our response to crisis,” she said. “We are exploring enhancing after-hours services … we are forging an active relationship with (GW Suicide Prevention Action Network).”

The University will be offering a new three-credit course to educate students about mental health issues, DePalma said. The class will be available through the psychology department next semester but will not be formal counselor training.

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