Staff Editorial: With counseling center improvements, visibility is key

The University’s counseling office was in turmoil nearly a year and a half ago when its director stepped down amid accusations of mismanagement.

At the time, the University Counseling Center was plagued by incompetent leadership, and wait times for appointments sometimes lasted six weeks.

It was especially frightening that these services were at stake, given that about one in four people 18 years and older have diagnosable mental health problems – including anxiety and depression – according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Leaving such a large number of students to fend for themselves is a discouraging prospect.

But with guidance and ideas from new director Silvio Weisner, as well as an infusion of cash from GW – about $200,000 extra over the last two years – the counseling center has made a series of positive strides, including plans announced this semester to hire two new counselors who specialize in veteran and international student issues.

It’s reassuring to see that after a bout of disorganization, the administration is directing sharper attention and more funding into essential University services. Adding specialized counselors is a smart way to reach those populations that GW is attracting with more frequency, and putting $150,000 into the office’s budget this year alone shows a strong commitment to mental health.

But mental health services at GW are still catching up. Helping students hinges not only on extensive outreach to publicize that these counselors are available, but also on using future UCC money to increase the number of free counseling sessions per student.

So far, the UCC, located blocks from the center of campus, has done little to publicize its new niche services. This year, the office should channel its outreach efforts to specific student groups on campus who can spread the word to their members about specialized counseling.

It is generally acceptable for University resources to be reactive. It’s okay that the Career Center doesn’t knock on residence hall doors asking for resumes to critique, and nobody expects Lerner Health and Wellness Center to try to corral students onto treadmills.

But when it comes to the University Counseling Center, a department charged with cultivating and maintaining the strong mental health of the student body, administrators need to take a more active stance.

The transition to college can be particularly difficult for international students, many of whom may feel isolated by language or social barriers. Student organizations help create a closer campus community for them, and for most students.

Granted, not all international students are involved in international student organizations. And an advertising campaign tailored specifically to student groups won’t reach every student in need of counseling. But it’s a good start to bring in more students who need help.

As the University looks to expand these specialized counselors to other populations – like the LGBT community – the office should make a similar marketing effort to ensure that these services reach a wider breadth of students than merely the active ones who seek out help on their own.

Going forward, the counseling center should also use its larger budget to offer more services to students for free. The University now provides students with six free counseling sessions. After that, students are either required to pay for their meetings, or seek help elsewhere.

If GW was truly committed to mental health, it would offer more than just short-term services. It is concerning that the UCC only sees itself as a short-term care center. It’s also not the norm, given that 93 percent of universities offer unlimited services free of charge, according to data from 320 schools in the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.

Money, of course, is limited, and GW has a host of options for added funding. But while GW is now prioritizing mental health more, we know the University is still leaving behind some students who need help.

As students at GW, we’re customers of the University, whether we realize it or not. We pay for these important resources, but they do us no good if they stay hidden or if our access to them is restricted.

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