Staff Editorial: Earning back student trust at the University Counseling Center

A staff member at the University Counseling Center allegedly threatened a student with expulsion three years ago if she stopped her counseling sessions there after a suicide attempt, The Hatchet reported last week.

This allegation should serve as a rousing reminder that when it comes to mental health services, the University still has much to do to earn back students’ trust. And this was just the latest in a long line of issues that have put UCC in a harsh spotlight.

Colleges have a moral imperative to ensure that students with mental health issues have access to treatment. A student’s right to care shouldn’t be threatened because of liability or financial concerns.

Colleges have a moral imperative to hire more psychologists so that students here always have a place to go – instead of hiring more marketing professionals or vice deans.

Colleges have a moral imperative to reflect on their priorities, make adjustments and take ownership over mistakes.

GW has started to realize that imperative, and since the threat of expulsion occurred three years ago, positive progress at the UCC shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Under the direction of Silvio Weisner, brought on as UCC’s leader 18 months ago, the University has bulked up the center’s budget to hire specialists for, among other things, student veterans and those with eating disorders. Wait times have decreased. After an intense student lobbying effort, the counseling center will be paired with Student Health Service and moved to a central campus location.

These reforms are reassuring.

And Weisner told The Hatchet in an email that “there is no current University policy that threatens suicidal students with expulsion.” But given that one in four college-aged students struggle with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, administrators should continue to emphasize their open-door approach.

Complacency isn’t an option, and the UCC shouldn’t be let off the hook – especially considering this new allegation. Turmoil rocked the UCC for years – failing students in need of support time after time:

  • In 2006, a student sued the University, claiming he was removed from classes and his residence hall after seeking treatment for depression. The two sides settled the case out of court.
  • Between fall 2009 and fall 2011, the majority of the center’s full time counselors left their jobs, reflecting what they called poor leadership and a hostile work environment.
  • Tension at the center eventually resulted in the resignation of former counseling center director John Dages in December 2011. He left after being accused of being incompetent and unprofessional.
  • Just two months later, associate director Barbara Brown left her post after questions were raised about her management ability, leaving the UCC leaderless.
  • As demand shot up for counseling services, the UCC couldn’t handle the traffic. Wait times often exceeded a month – and occasionally reached six weeks – leaving students who needed help with nowhere to turn.

We don’t mean to dig up skeletons in the UCC’s closet, but rather to underline why student leaders and administrators need to continue to fight for mental health services. An internal review of the counseling center – and a new and effective director – have helped to eliminate the majority of these errors and administrative failures. We also applaud University President Steven Knapp for taking action last semester to begin GW’s health centers’ move to campus.

But a series of hurdles remain in the way of any swift changes to psychological services – many of which have nothing to do with the counseling center itself. The UCC is one of many departments and offices at GW, all of which compete for financial resources and administrators’ eyes and ears.

And if you look around the country, you find that GW’s services don’t always measure up.

At schools like New York University, all services – with the exception of medication – are free of charge. At GW, students pay after six sessions and are shuffled out after 12.

This isn’t nearly enough for many patients. Abruptly ending counseling once an arbitrary limit is reached is grueling. For some, it is nearly impossible to feel comfortable opening up to a therapist if they know that soon, that relationship will be forced to end.

There isn’t a cap on the amount of times students are allowed to visit the doctor for physical impairments and injuries. Why shouldn’t the same apply to mental health?

While sound psychological offerings might not improve GW’s public image or show up on a brochure, it will have an immeasurable effect on the lives of countless students who can’t properly function in their personal or academic lives without help from campus therapists.

If GW doesn’t continue to aggressively bill itself as a place with wide open doors for students in need of support – and back it up with action – the University fails in its duty to keep students healthy.

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