Tom Braslavsky: Eliminate University counseling fees

The death of junior Ismail Ginwala is a loss for the University.

As the details of his death begin to emerge, GW is tasked with another challenge – to better aid students who are grappling with mental illness.

Nationwide only 6.7 percent of university counseling centers charge at all for personal counseling, according to the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.

Of those universities that charge, the mean counseling fee is $14, a fraction of what most GW students pay. This flies in the face of the University’s commitment to its students’ well-being by pushing away some of those who need counseling most.

Colleges nationwide have seen a rising trend in mental health issues, and GW is no exception. The University Counseling Center has seen a 20 percent increase in visitors this year, according to a Feb. 7 Hatchet article. What sets GW’s counseling center apart from others is its $50 per-session fee.

I spoke about this with Adam Katz, co-president of GW Active Minds, a student organization seeking to raise awareness about and decrease the stigma surrounding mental issues on campus. Katz said the fee for counseling sessions is a detriment to students seeking help, especially when they are trying to resolve personal issues without involving their parents.

He elaborated that the stigma surrounding mental health issues also prevents students from approaching their parents about such concerns, which often leads students to forgo help altogether.

Indeed, the UCC gives each student one free over-the-phone “triage” session in order to identify the issue and schedule a personal appointment. But after that, it’s time to pay up. The counseling center has a “sliding-scale fee application,” which decreases the charge for those with financial need, according to the UCC website.

This sliding-scale system merely forces students to start worrying about affordability and form-filling, when they should be speaking to someone about their problems.

The website also says that if the sliding-scale fee is not sufficient, the counseling center can refer students to “several low-fee clinics in the area.” But doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose of having a counseling center at all? The UCC is supposed to be a place that handles student concerns and issues specific to the GW community. Why should those who have issues which need addressing, but cannot pay the fee, be pushed away by the University’s service?

Student Association Senator Jason Kaplan, who ran for SA president this year on a platform of ending UCC fees, calls the $50 charge ridiculous and criticized the University for not changing the status quo, which, he said, was pushing many students away from getting the help they needed.

Kaplan said while several issues plague students’ college experiences, none will stay with them quite like the need for counseling. It is imperative to catch those issues before students graduate, he said. (Disclosure: The writer is in the same fraternity as Kaplan.)

Students may feel the need to speak to a counselor for a wide variety of issues, ranging from everyday problems stemming from relationships and academics, to serious mental disorders. As a support base and a stepping stone between adolescence and adulthood, the University has an obligation to uphold regarding students’ mental and emotional well-being – all the more so when considering the already hefty price tag it places on them to be a part of the community.

At Tuesday’s SA Senate meeting, the last one of this academic year, the senate unanimously passed a non-binding resolution written by Kaplan, urging the University to make counseling services free for all students. The resolution calls for the University to implement some form of free counseling by next semester, and to move toward completely eliminating all fees by the fall 2012 semester.

But, while the SA can pass non-binding resolutions, it is only those at the top of the GW food chain who can really change this damaging policy. The UCC is a great resource to have on our campus. Let’s make it even better by joining the 93.3 percent of institutions out there that provide free personal counseling to their students.

It’s the responsible first step toward addressing a worrying trend.

Tom Braslavsky, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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