Trustees heard an emphatic pitch from Student Association President Nick Gumas last week for what could become his legacy at GW: a peer-to-peer hotline to supplement a campus counseling center facing rising demand and limited resources.
Gumas said the University is not alone in facing the nationwide “mental health crisis” during an extended speech at the Board of Trustees meeting Friday. He argued that a peer counseling program would help those students who “just need someone to talk to” find help quickly, instead of waiting for an appointment at the campus center.
“You don’t just wake up one day depressed. You don’t just wake up one day with a severe mental illness,” Gumas said. “It’s a bad day that turns into a bad week, that turns into a bad month, that can eventually become a problem.”
Trustees came to campus about week after a junior attempted to commit suicide, which Gumas said pushed mental health concerns to the forefront of students’ minds. Following his speech, some board members and top officials gave the green light for Gumas to move forward with building the program.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Nelson Carbonell said he’s met with Gumas and Executive Vice President Avra Bossov regularly to discuss their ideas.
With four children in college, Carbonell said he personally understands why it’s important to have a robust mental health system on a campus, and said he wants to pay “close attention” to mental health issues at GW in particular.
“We’re behind them 100 percent to figure out what the best plan is moving forward,” Carbonell said.
Since Gumas and Bossov started researching and lobbying for the program seven months ago, Carbonell said they are the most informed and the Board will look to them to take the lead.
A cornerstone of his campaign platform last year, the project would take time to get off the ground. Gumas said those involved would need to create a curriculum to train student staffers and plan where the call center would be housed.
With the program likely to launch after he graduates in May, Gumas said he would need to make his plan a priority for administrators before his successor, who may have a different agenda, takes over.
University President Steven Knapp said he values the ideas he hears from students, and called Gumas’ plan “very innovative.”
“That’s an ongoing discussion because we need to understand the perspective of everyone involved, including the professionals and what they think,” Knapp said.
Officials have focused on supporting mental health resources over the past several years, but especially after the suicides of three students on campus shook the community last semester. Amid budget crunches across the University, the counseling center was one of three departments to see an increase in financial support this year.
The University has hired several specialists over the past two years, added more walk-in hours and created a system to push the students most in need to the top of the appointment list. But students have still had to deal with weeks-long waiting times because of a continuing rise in demand for services.
Leah Harris, the director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, said students will be more likely to reach out to someone they think they can connect with, like a peer, and that bringing a program to GW’s campus would add an extra safety net.
“The idea is that peer counselors can relieve that gap in services and sort of keep people connected so they don’t fall through the cracks, that’s a big piece of it. It’s so hard to get help so people give up,” Harris said.
Gumas told trustees that the SA has received “dozens of messages” from students who want help but haven’t been able to find it on campus. One student said she wished she had someone to talk to about her mother passing away, while an older student said she dropped out of school initially because she didn’t have anyone to confide in, and has only now returned 30 years later.
He said he envisions the student counselors, who wouldn’t act as therapists, receiving training specifically in issues that are prevalent on college campuses, including depression, struggles with body image and LGBT issues. Gumas pointed to programs that he would model GW’s after, including those at Cornell and Harvard universities, as well as the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The voices of support from top administrators and board members come a month after the Student Association passed a bill in support of the program, its first major step forward.
Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said student involvement in mental health advocacy is “critical,” and added that he supports Gumas’ priorities.
“We will continue to work with members of the SA as they refine their proposal, and we look forward to continued collaboration and implementation of resources that support our community,” Konwerski said in an email. Konwerski declined to provide specifics about the rest of the process to make the plans a reality.
University Counseling Center Director Silvio Weisner did not respond to questions about how long the UCC waitlist is, or how he plans to work with the SA to implement the program.
Cornell University’s peer-counseling program took nearly a decade to transform a small peer group into the walk-in center it has today.
Gregory Eells, the counseling director at Cornell, said one of the most important decisions is how to train the student counselors, and that officials should include role play and theoretical discussions when they work with students. He said trainings should also focus on how to listen actively.
“The empathy part is oftentimes best delivered by peers who have a good sense of what’s going on,” Eells said. “A lot of healing that comes from telling your story.”
The anonymity factor distinguishes the program from alternatives, like live-in resident advisers, Gumas said. While student could go to their advisers with concerns, Gumas said they might feel awkward discussing some subjects, with the potential to, for example, run into them in an elevator later.
As a resident adviser for the past two years, Bossov said she sees the two programs as distinct from each other, and that the ability to remain anonymous would be a draw for students who might feel uncomfortable with face-to-face conversations.
“We’re not going to, in one program, get at the root of the stigma against mental health, but what we are doing is really providing another diverse and proactive program,” Bossov said. “A lot of times, mental health is discussed only in terms of mental illness, but it’s very much a spectrum, and this provides students another outlet to address that.”
Eva Palmer and Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.