Counseling will become a permanent fixture on the Mount Vernon Campus next fall, officials announced Monday, as part of an effort to bolster mental health services for a campus where three students have died in three months.
Top administrators will decide the office’s hours, staffing and location in the next few months. GW has already stationed counselors on the 700-student suburban campus throughout the past two weeks, in addition to spreading more mental health resources across the University.
“We’re committed to doing this. We just need to figure things out on the logistics side,” University spokeswoman Candace Smith said.
Two of the three freshmen who died on the campus this year, honors students Benjamin Asma and Sean Keefer, committed suicide. The city medical examiner has not yet determined the cause of death for senior Lynley Redwood, who also lived in West Hall.
University President Steven Knapp, Provost Steven Lerman and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski have spent about two weeks examining how to create a permanent mental health center on the Foxhall Road campus after calls from students and parents.
The issue – and the campus – gained national attention last week when the New York Times spotlighted the lack of counseling on the Vern in an article about the deaths. “It should have been available on the Vern in the first place,” freshman Michael Hawthorne told the Times.
Top officials have already made efforts to prioritize student health resources this year, announcing last month that GW would relocate the health services and counseling centers from K Street to the Marvin Center in the heart of the Foggy Bottom Campus. The counseling center has fought for more dollars, staff and space for nearly a decade.
“It should have been available on the Vern in the first place” – freshman Michael Hawthorne
Officials set up temporary walk-in counseling for students on the Vern for three hours every day last week, with informational flyers placed on doors and bulletin boards in residence halls and Eckles Library. Psychiatrists from GW Medical Faculty Associates and experts in the public health schools also helped with outreach.
Most students who live on the Vern are freshmen – a group that is more likely to face emotional challenges as they transition to college life, said Victor Schwartz, the medical director for the Jed Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for college mental health resources.
“For the people who are the least familiar with the school and more likely to be having the most transition-type issues, you want them to be at the center of things,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said colleges with secondary campuses commonly hire part-time or full-time counselors to offer walk-in hours as “a way to spread their professional resources without spreading themselves too thin.” The staff members can then refer students to the main office for appointments and longer-term care.
The University has escalated residential life and academic offerings on the 23-acre wooded campus, including pouring about $60 million into renovations for the campus’ two largest buildings – West and Ames halls – over the last four years.
Since the opening of West Hall in 2010, the number of students living on the campus has swelled by 40 percent. About 200 classes are taught on the campus each semester, including all first-year University Writing classes, and about 1,400 students take classes or live on the campus Monday through Thursday.
About 15 years after GW purchased the Mount Vernon Campus from a small women’s college, it now boasts two dining venues, tutoring sessions, a package services center, a registrar office and a University Police Department office.
Student Health Service, which provides physical health resources, operated a small clinic on the Mount Vernon Campus until about a decade ago. The facility, which included two examination rooms, an office and labs in the basement of Somers Hall, saw little traffic from students and was eventually closed after the office moved into its larger K Street space in 2006, former administrator Robert Chernak said.
A lack of student use also prompted Duke University to close its small walk-in health center on its secondary campus, which houses about 1,700 freshmen.
Lisa Beth Bergene, associate dean for that campus, said the East Campus clinic – which did not include counseling services – posed logistical challenges, from hiring clinical directors to overseeing newer staff to maintaining records and databases across campuses.
“There are things you wouldn’t think of until you try to split the office up into two parts,” she said.
-Sarah Ferris contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the April 14, 2014 issue of the Hatchet.