Staff Editorial: GW can prove its commitment to mental health by making all counseling sessions free

The University has raised tuition yet again, but this time – for the first time ever – it has tied the increase to a bit of positive news: They’ll boost mental health services by funneling some of the money into the University Counseling Center.

The 3.4 percent hike isn’t surprising, and of course we’re thrilled that mental health is receiving financial attention. But something about announcing both moves at the same time seems manipulative.

If GW wants to convince students that mental health is a priority and not a PR move, it should make all counseling services, not just the first six sessions, free – period.

Right now, it looks like the University is trying to direct our attention away from a big tuition bill and toward mental health – a salient issue on campus. We don’t know if this is intentional on GW’s part, but regardless, something feels off.

It looks good when officials say GW will use students’ money to benefit them. But they shouldn’t be doing it just to check off some boxes and keep us complacent – they should be doing it because they truly care about our well-being. If GW wants to prove that’s true, it needs to do more.

The only way we can believe that mental health is a top priority is if the University does something concrete – like removing all cost for counseling services, no strings attached. More and more schools are eliminating their fees, and it’s something the student body has long waited for: Free counseling is an initiative that both the Student Association and The Hatchet have supported in the past.

Students clearly have a strong need for on-campus counseling. A survey released last week by UCLA found that more young people are starting college feeling depressed or overwhelmed by school work and other commitments. The New York Times reported that the survey, of over 150,000 recent high school seniors nationwide, is considered a “comprehensive snapshot” of the U.S. college freshman class, and shows that rates of depression have increased in the past five years.

We know counseling is crucial on this campus, too. Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski told The Hatchet last week that UCC has seen a rise in individual and psychiatry appointments, as well as after-hours crisis incidents, over the last year. In the same timeframe, the community has experienced eight student deaths, including three confirmed suicides. Concerns about mental health are ever-present on this campus.

And over the past few years, GW has focused on boosting counseling services, from bringing UCC to the center of the Foggy Bottom Campus to sending counseling to the Mount Vernon Campus.

The University’s current plan – to hire more counselors – is a great thought. But in practice, it’s a lackluster announcement. University spokeswoman Candace Smith told The Hatchet last week that “some portion” of the tuition increase will be put toward hiring “the equivalent of just over eight” counseling positions, but declined to give any more specifics.

That’s not the kind of announcement that will get us applauding GW’s commitment to mental health. Free counseling, on the other hand, could actually make waves. Committing to it would be the best way to answer the questions that come from vague proposals about an unspecified promise.

Of course, free counseling isn’t the be-all, end-all solution to “curing” mental health on this campus forever. It means nothing, for instance, if the quality of care is subpar or if wait times for appointments are too long. But it would be a huge step to improve the counseling system on campus, and would send a loud and clear message to students that GW is pulling out all the stops.

Really, free counseling is not a wild idea. In fact, one would not expect GW – which has taken a stance on mental health for several years – to still be behind the curve on free counseling. Just 4.7 percent of college centers across the country charge a fee for personal counseling, according to a 2014 survey by the American College Counseling Association. That’s down from 10 percent in 2003 and down from 17 percent in 1996. Clearly, more schools are switching to the right side of this debate.

What’s more, the mean charge is just $20 per session – but at GW, each appointment after the first six free sessions will cost a student triple that.

A number of GW’s peer schools – including American, Emory, New York, Northwestern and Southern Methodist universities – all offer free counseling. Admittedly, some others – like Georgetown and Tufts universities – do not.

It’s time for GW to step up and join the big leagues. Right now, the University sees itself as a starting point and not a primary care provider when it comes to counseling, and it has a robust referral service. It’s great that they’re honest about those limitations, but they’re purely self-imposed.

The ACCA survey also notes that 30 percent of counseling centers limit the number of counseling sessions allowed per student. Right now, that’s where GW sits. But 28 percent of centers will see students as long as necessary. That may be a small group, but it’s one that our University should join.

There are a couple reasons this move makes sense for GW. For starters, it has overhauled UCC’s fee system before. For many years, students had to pay $50 for each individual session until student outrage prompted GW to make the first six free – the system that’s still in place today.

At the time, the then-director of UCC told The Hatchet that most students come in for an average of four sessions each. So in reality, making all counseling free – past the first half-dozen sessions – wouldn’t spell financial doom for GW. In fact, it would have little impact on the bottom line, but would be a huge benefit for students.

University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt said in the fall that for the 2014-2015 academic year, about 4,600 graduate and undergraduate students were signed up for GW’s insurance plan and can receive counseling for free – but that’s just 18 percent of the student population.

Granted, GW does its best to make the program affordable for students who aren’t on GW’s insurance. The fee can sometimes be waived for those who demonstrate financial need, the UCC can direct students to low-cost clinics off campus, if necessary, and some insurance providers will reimburse the appointment costs.

But these safety nets can’t cover every student. Those who need counseling for longer shouldn’t have to worry about coming up with money to continue receiving help from one consistent counselor who’s on campus, as opposed to finding a brand new one who may be less conveniently located and more expensive.

On a larger scale, making all counseling free would improve the statistics that are important to GW – like graduation rates. A 2012 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey found that 64 percent of college students who had stopped attending school within the previous five years did so for mental health reasons – and half of them didn’t access mental health support while attending school. There should be no limits – least of all financial – keeping students from taking advantage of counseling services.

We’re excited about the prospect of a peer-counseling program starting at GW, of course. But that program serves a different purpose than in-person, individual sessions with a licensed clinician. A counseling hotline staffed by students would be hugely beneficial to folks who need to talk out daily stresses, and it could help those callers feel a little less overwhelmed.

Just because this program appears to be moving full-steam ahead doesn’t mean other ideas for investing in UCC should be taken off the table. There’s no catch-all for mental health concerns, so why not try everything?

At the end of the day, we do understand the realities of GW’s financial situation. With big dreams of becoming a major research institution that boasts top-notch facilities and faculty and offers students the best services, the University has to raise tuition. Students have to pay it, and we will.

But in return, GW should – at the very least – prevent a potential burden from impacting mental health care. The University can’t ask incoming students for more tuition, and then turn around and charge them for the counseling that can ease their fears and anxieties over finances.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, design editor Sophie McTear, sports editor Nora Princiotti, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein, senior designer Anna McGarrigle and design assistant Samantha LaFrance.

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