Updated: April 10, 2015 at 7:41 p.m.
Five clinicians have joined the University Counseling Center since December, adding specific skills to the short-term facility like experience handling drug addiction cases and working with law students.
Another specialist will focus on the needs of LGBT students. A fourth will be a liaison to the University’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus and help students in the medical and nursing programs there. GW also hired an assistant director for outreach and prevention, and a case manager who is not a clinician.
Experts said specialists can help the office better target certain groups of students or create programs that could help those groups. Student leaders focused on mental health issues on campus said they also hope to see more collaboration between their organizations and the new clinicians.
Hiring clinicians for specific populations across the University has been a focus since UCC Director Silvio Weisner was hired in 2012. The following year, the center received a $200,000 budget increase to hire specialists for international students and veterans.
“At the same time, while we have clinicians who specialize in coordinating mental health care for specific populations, all of our clinicians are generalists and are trained to meet the needs of all of our students,” Weisner said in a release, adding that more full-time staff will be hired next academic year.
Weisner, Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski and Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine declined to comment on how many counseling sessions UCC has had this year, how administrators decided to hire the specialists, or when the new clinicians will begin to work.
The University’s recent hires come after two student deaths in the GW Law School last semester, one of which was confirmed a suicide in January. Also in the fall, an undergraduate student died from a mix of drugs and alcohol – the third student to die from a mix of drugs in as many years.
Last spring, three students who lived in West Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus committed suicide, and a student attempted to commit suicide on the Foggy Bottom Campus several months later.
UCC is one of three departments that saw a funding increase this year amid a campus-wide budget crunch. The University is also allocating a portion of next fall’s 3.4 percent tuition increase to expanding mental health services on campus, which will cover the costs of creating about eight new UCC positions.
Before the most recent round of hiring, the ratio of counselors to students was one per every 1,000. The staff currently has 16 full-time clinicians in addition to clinical fellows, interns and a case manager.
Dolores Cimini, the assistant director of university counseling at the State University of New York at Albany, said GW’s choices for specialists are likely strategic. They target certain groups of students that are more likely to need counseling during college or who face stigma in seeking help, she said.
For example, Cimini said universities nationwide are trying to increase counseling services for law and medical students.
“The programs can be highly stressful and highly competitive for many students, so students enrolled in those programs may be under particularly high pressure and may face more challenges or ambivalence about going to counseling,” Cimini said.
Cimini added that mental health and substance abuse resources should work in tandem, which is likely what led GW officials to hiring a specialist for counseling students struggling with addiction. UCC and Health Promotion and Prevention Services, formerly called the Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education, moved to one centralized office in the Marvin Center with Student Health Service this past year.
“If one were to address high-risk drinking and or drug use, then general mental health on campus may improve along with that,” Cimini said.
David Spano, the director of university counseling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said specialized counselors will often work on outreach to certain populations, but they will see any student for counseling appointments or walk-in hours.
“Anything a counselor can to do make students see counselors are real people and make sure students know counseling is something we go through sometimes will make students more likely to use university counseling,” Spano said.
Spano said a larger number of counselors should shorten the time between when students call and when they are seen by a counselor. GW officials have said that they are seeing more demand for individual appointments, psychiatry appointments and after-hours crisis resources, and students have complained about waiting as long as a month to schedule an appointment with UCC.
“If you don’t have enough staff to be seen today, that’s when students can fall through the cracks,” Spano said.
Jocelyn Jacoby, the secretary of GW student organization Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge, said more specialized clinicians will allow more students to get the counseling they need. She said the staffing increase will also give students better opportunities to find a counselor with whom they connect.
“Just because you fall into a certain demographic doesn’t mean that’s the best person for you,” Jacoby said. “You need a good mix of both, and everyone needs to be able to kind of handle any issues students are dealing with.”
Timothy Rabolt, a senior and the president of GW Students for Recovery, said the new clinicians could solve a “lack of communication and collaboration” by reaching out to specific groups of students.
He said his group, which is focused on students recovering from substance abuse, was not aware until this week that the University planned to hire a counselor specializing in addiction.
“At this point, we’re not an unknown student organization,” Rabolt said. “It shouldn’t be our duty to research who’s been hired. That should be made known to the student body that this person is now available for you to see if you have a specific problem with addiction.”
Rabolt said he hopes his organization and UCC can work together to offer more programming and create more group counseling sessions.
“These counselors should be active outside of their offices, coming to student organization meetings or meeting with their leaders,” Rabolt said.
UCC now has nine counseling group, including one for female sexual assault survivors and another for students with eating disorders.
Student Association President Nick Gumas said one of the counselors from this round of hiring or one GW plans to hire over the summer will likely serve as the supervisor for a peer-support program, which University President Steven Knapp committed to implementing in January.
“That person can help with a recruitment strategy and making a curriculum,” Gumas said.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that a new clinician would be stationed at the Virginia Science and Technology Campus. The clinician will be stationed on Foggy Bottom, but will serve as a liaison to VSTC. We regret this error.