Updated: March 23, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.
Students may have to wait as long as a month to schedule an appointment with the University Counseling Center, as the number of students seeking mental health services has steadily increased.
Demand for counseling has risen at GW and across the country, putting more pressure on administrators to shorten the lag time between when students seek help and when they are seen in an office.
Several students said that they were told by UCC staff members to try the Mount Vernon Campus instead, which some said had no wait time and is open later. The University created a smaller counseling clinic on the campus after three students who lived there committed suicide last spring.
UCC Director Silvio Weisner, Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski and Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine declined to say how long the current wait times are on both campuses, or how the times compare to those in recent years.
When Weisner came to campus in 2012, he created a triage system that included initial assessments and crisis intervention services over the phone and group counseling sessions to cut down wait times. It also pushed students with more immediate needs to the top of the list.
Konwerski presented information about the increased demand at last month’s Board of Trustees meeting, but he declined to provide specific numbers for how many students the centers were seeing. GW reported in 2013 that UCC counted a total of 575 walk-in appointments from 2012-13, compared to 201 appointments the previous year.
“Mirroring a national trend, in recent years we have seen an increase in demand for individual appointments, psychiatry appointments and after-hours crises,” Konwerski said in an email. “The numbers of appointments and duration on the waitlist varies, and we see students with urgent needs right away.”
As that demand has risen, the University has prioritized mental health services on campus. In the last year, the University moved the UCC and Student Health Service to the Marvin Center. It hired three specialists this year, including a permanent counselor for the Mount Vernon Campus and a diversity expert, and added walk-in hours at both counseling centers.
UCC is one of just three departments that received a funding increase last year amid a campus-wide budget crunch.
Students are eligible for six free sessions each semester at UCC, which aims to refer students to outside counselors for long-term assistance. Nance Roy, a medical director at the Jed Foundation, a campus mental health advocacy group, said universities can best reduce wait times when they refer students to services off campus.
“It’s being able to quickly triage if this is a person who we really think is going to be served better longer-term in the community, or who may want or prefer to be seen in the community as opposed to their counseling center on campus,” Roy said.
He said walk-in counseling hours, which GW provides, can also shorten wait times.
University officials can aim to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues on campus, as many students turn to their peers when going through hard times, Roy said. GW officials and student leaders have worked together over the last year to create programming and conversations on campus about mental health.
“Students listen to students far more than they’re going to listen to their counseling director stand up and talk about mental health. That’s just reality,” Roy said. “Students have the best pulse on what’s going on with their peers on campus, and they know the language to use to get the messages across.”
The Student Association called for a peer-support program this year, which University President Steven Knapp committed to implementing in January. The program will likely be run out of the newly integrated Colonial Health Center in the Marvin Center.
Senior Timothy Rabolt, the president of GW’s Students for Recovery, said the peer-support program should be used for general mental health issues but not necessarily for students with diagnosed mental health conditions. If peer counselors assist students with general issues, it could help cut down the number of students on the waitlist, he said.
“A lot of people on campus don’t know the distinction between general mental health or actual mental illness, and so if the peer-support program is mainly used for general health like someone’s having a bad day or relationship problems or troubles at home, then it’ll free up the counseling center a little bit for students who do have mental disorders,” Rabolt said.
Junior Angela Ng, an officer of GW’s To Write Love on Her Arms UChapter, said making sure that mental health-related student organizations have offices in the Marvin Center would further centralize resources for those seeking support from peers. That could in turn cut down on the number of appointments students make at UCC, she said.
“We’re very independent in what we’re doing. We just work to fill the gap that the UCC has left,” Ng said about peers offering support. “A lot of mental health-related groups would appreciate having office space to have a base in case students want to find us.”
Three SA presidential and executive vice presidential candidates have included changes to UCC in their platforms this year.
Between 2012 and 2013, GW increased the UCC budget by about $200,000 to continue offering some free counseling sessions to students and hire two specialists for international students and veterans. The Board of Trustees approved a 3.4 percent tuition hike earlier this year, part of which will go toward mental health resources. Officials have said that the money will be used to hire the equivalent of about eight staff members.
Delores Cimini, the assistant director of university counseling at the State University of New York at Albany, said schools can also take a decentralizing approach to counseling by installing counselors in other major offices. State University of New York offers drop-in counseling at their advising, career and athletic offices.
“It’s one-stop shopping, and it actually feels less stigmatizing because they can just walk in,” Cimini said.
This post was updated to reflect the following clarification:
The Hatchet reported that GW offered “counseling over the phone.” The University Counseling Center does offer initial assessments and crisis intervention services over the phone, but scheduled counseling appointments are done face-to-face.