Counseling center frees up staff for walk-ins

Walk-in appointments at the University Counseling Center jumped 42 percent this spring, an increase its new director said helps students as they wait to be assigned to a counselor or in emergency situations.

A total of 262 walk-in appointments were recorded this spring, compared to 76 walk-ins made in spring 2012.

UCC director Silvio Weisner said while students had not been turned away in the past if they walked in with an urgent need, the center could now see walk-ins for 20 or 30-minute sessions within about an hour.

The two counselors now on duty for walk-ins and phone assessments during business hours comprise a major piece of its new director’s plan to increase access. The change comes after students last fall reported waiting up to one month for an in-person session.

Weisner said almost 90 percent of students waited fewer than three weeks to be assigned to a counselor, after an initial assessment, so far this academic year.

He added that since he arrived at the counseling center in September, most students had their first session – an initial assessment that is typically held over the phone – within 24 hours.

Weisner, who was hired away from nearby Marymount University in Maryland last fall, said the center is working toward a same-day system for all students seeking those first appointments, compared to past years when students sometimes waited up to a week for prescheduled phone sessions.

He announced last week the center’s “mostly successful” 24-hour assessment period alongside a handful of other changes he’s overseen in his seven months at GW.

The counseling center has seen an uptick in appointments in the two years since giving students six free sessions per semester, as well as cutting fees for group sessions.

To implement more than a dozen recommendations from a University-wide review of the center last year, Weisner brought three staffers into leadership roles this year, one of whom started Monday at GW. The center’s assistant and associate director roles include training and education, outreach and prevention and clinical services ­– three areas highlighted by last year’s review.

He began whittling down the waitlist by allowing for a walk-in option and freeing up staff hours for appointments, and said the staff is also focusing on increasing trainings for staff members and faculty around the University, assessing visitor experiences through surveys and reviving the center’s graduate student training program.

As staff tweak procedures, Weisner said he would constantly crunch numbers and look at evaluations.

Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine, who has overseen the UCC for several years, said GW has previously tracked the way students request appointments, how long they have to wait and who that student is.

This summer, staff will dig into a comprehensive, data-driven review and examine “all aspects of the center,” Weisner said.

Students will be asked to fill out surveys this fall, evaluating everything from the friendliness of the front desk staff to the types of skills they gained during their sessions.

“I’m a very data-driven person and I believe you can use data to help implement positive changes,” Weisner said, adding that data can help confirm what the center is doing well and what needs improvement. “We’re looking for as much and as varied data as we can possibly get about students’ experiences.”

Administrators have scrutinized the counseling center over the last year after allegations surfaced in November 2011 from multiple counselors who said they left the center because of previous leadership. Director John Dages resigned in December, followed two months later by associate director Barbara Brown.

Weisner noted that he has observed strong staff morale, and said no counselors left under his leadership.

Weisner is also advancing an idea pitched by the University’s counseling review team last year to reintroduce a graduate student training center.

He said the University will likely begin recruiting for its graduate student program next year, and is planning to admit students in the fall of 2014. The center currently hires post-doctoral students working on their licensing accreditation, and has not taught graduate students for nearly a decade.

The students would be brought in as full-time interns to work alongside the center’s staff, which Weisner said would keep staff “energized and motivated.”

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