Counseling center’s budget increase helps bring in specialized therapists

The University Counseling Center will use a budget that is $150,000 larger this year to pay two new counselors who will work with veterans and international students.

The expanded counseling center budget brings the office’s clinician staff to eight and marks another step by GW in improving its mental health services. Silvio Weisner, the center’s director, said the populations that will be served by the new counselors are traditionally hesitant to seek mental health resources.

“They tend to underutilize therapy. Having staff clinicians in place who have these areas of expertise will help with outreach and prevention efforts and coordination of mental health services for these groups,” Weisner said.

The number of veterans and international students each has swelled in recent years, with administrators planning for even more growth. GW hired its first military-focused dean this year, and prioritized international student recruitment and programs in its 10-year strategic plan approved this spring.

Without extra encouragement, Weisner said, some international students resist mental health resources because of a cultural stigma. In addition to language barriers, he said foreign students who are unfamiliar with American universities also carry the misconception their visits will be marked on their academic record.

Similarly, veterans and students whose families may be in the military are less likely to seek help because therapy sessions in the military do not come with the same level of confidentiality, he said.

This year’s budget increase is far more than the additional $40,000 put towards the University Counseling Center last year to help shoulder the costs of the center’s free sessions. Students can receive six free sessions each year, a policy that began in 2011.

After Weisner came to campus last year, administrators launched a months-long review of the center and honed in on ways to improve it. In December 2011, the center’s director resigned after several staffers said mismanagement and dysfunction plagued the center. The center’s second-in-command resigned two months later.

In the future, Weisner said he’d also like to hire staff with backgrounds in LGBT issues, eating disorders and addiction.

Until then, Weisner, who has a background in LGBT mental health, takes those types of appointments. But because he is running the center, Weisner said it’s an issue of time. He also has a background of counseling deaf students and students dealing with issues related to HIV or AIDS.

“It’s certainly a priority,” Weisner said. “As always when it comes to counseling center development, there’s always more needs than there are resources to meet those needs. We’ll have to weigh the needs and have a discussion with our staff on what we want to prioritize as additional money becomes available for hiring.”

The funding will also go toward a postdoctoral clinical fellow position, increasing the number of trainees preparing for licensing to four. The three new staffers, who start Monday, will help increase the number of students the center can see in a day at a center that has suffered from several weeks-long waitlists before students even sit down for therapy.

Weisner said although he “won’t be so naive to say it will prevent a waitlist,” the new staffers may help take the pressure off during the center’s busiest times, like at the beginning of the school year.

Last spring, the center hired temporary clinicians, prioritized students with “urgent needs” and increased referrals, all of which helped to lessen wait times.

Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski tasked Weisner with linking GW’s four other mental health clinics – ranging from an overcrowded psychology clinic to an art therapy program staffed by graduate students – in a consortium for the first time. The directors met several times this summer and plan on meeting once or twice a semester, Weisner said.

Pat Ketcham, president of the American College Health Association, said opportunities for specialized therapy are increasing nationwide.

“It’s something individual campuses look at and try to meet the needs for,” Ketcham said, adding that the high number of returning veterans and growing number of international students nationwide make specialists in those areas popular first choices. She added that addiction, LGBTQ and suicide specialists are also common.

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