University Counseling Center review focuses on increased visibility

A committee charged with evaluating the University Counseling Center’s services issued more than a dozen recommendations this week to improve the center over the next five years.

The recommendations call for increasing awareness and access to the center, assessing visitor and staff feedback and coordinating with campus-wide mental health services to better support students.

“We want to make sure people know the changes we made to open up services,” Dean of Students Peter Konwerski, who oversaw the committee’s efforts, said.

The University implemented Monday a recommendation from the review to drop a $10 fee for group counseling sessions. UCC offers collective discussions focused on specific mental health areas, such as anger management, sexual assault and eating disorders.

The demand for group counseling jumped 150 percent between fall 2010 and this fall, the center’s interim director Mark Levine said. He attributed the climb to the staff’s greater focus in the last year on referring students to these programs.

The one-page document outlining the results of the review addressed staffing – suggesting GW “review [the] existing UCC staffing model” and “continue working with Human Resources on staff development opportunities” – but it did not detail ways to better recruit, train or support staff.

Konwerski said changes to staffing structure or development would lie in the hands of the center’s new leader. The University aims to hire a director before the summer – an addition that Konwerski hopes will strengthen working relationships among staff members.

“They’re going to make sure the team is cultivated and taken care of,” Konwerski said.

The five-week review began in late December following the departure of 13 counselors since 2009, with many citing a hostile working environment for their exit.

Konwerski and Levine received the recommendations in mid-January, but declined to disclose the details until this week.

The center’s former director John Dages resigned in December, less than a month after complaints surfaced from seven former employees who claimed his mismanagement drove them away. Associate Director Barbara Brown, also a target of criticism, announced her resignation last month.

This week, UCC began surveying first-time visitors to the center, asking students about their sessions and their prior familiarity with the center. Konwerski said the feedback will help staff adjust their practices to respond to student concerns.

The center will also work to better communicate the $30 fee charged to students who do not show up to their appointments. Since a policy change granted students up to six free sessions annually, Konwerski said the number of no-shows climbed from 200 last year at this time to about 380 this year.

The council will also bring together clinical staff from the University’s other mental health centers to better coordinate services.

George Howe, professor and director of clinical training in the psychology department, took part in the review. As a participant, he said he stressed greater collaboration among campus support systems, such as the art therapy program, the speech and hearing program and house staff in residence halls.

“There are a lot of other key players in mental health here at GW,” Howe said.

Over the next few months, Konwerski said UCC would be increasing the visibility of the office through more events featuring staff from the center and a greater use of social media.

“We know we’re hearing good things. It doesn’t mean we can’t be improving,” Konwerski said.

The University will create a standing advisory council, tapping several members from the review committee to regularly assess the center’s campus presence. Konwerski said the council would not evaluate operations or staff.

“They’re not going to get into the specifics of the center. The focus will be on the broader campus mental health and issues around care for students,” Konwerski said.

Four psychologists have been hired this semester, out of the center’s nine full-time spots. Levine said he is noticing the staff working together as a team “enjoying time together, professional growing and having fun,” which he said are signs of staff retention.

“I spend time talking with staff each and every day and they tell me that they are busy, but glad to be at GW,” Levine said.

The University will also create a five-year strategic plan for counseling services, working with the new director and members of the review committee to develop a long-term vision for the center, Konwerski said.

The center continues to meet the needs of students, Konwerski said, citing a recent satisfaction survey tied into the review that he did not provide to The Hatchet.

“Students have been really, really positive about our services,” he said.

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