Updated: Sept. 30, 2015 at 5:51 p.m.
The former Director of Mental Health Services Silvio Weisner, who suddenly stepped down last week, is not licensed to practice as a psychologist in the District, according to documents from the D.C. Department of Health.
Weisner, who served as director of MHS for nearly three years, was not a licensed psychologist or professional counselor in D.C. as of last week. Weisner was tasked with improving a struggling clinic that has continued to see major turnover in leadership and staffing, and after a string of on-campus suicides in 2014, was given increased funding amid a University-wide focus on mental health.
Melissa Rand, an associate director of MHS, also stepped down this month – a departure that officials did not publicly announce. She, too, was not licensed as a professional counselor in D.C. as of last week. Rand is a licensed professional counselor in Virginia.
Peter Konwerski, the dean of student affairs, said in a statement that when officials discovered that two members of MHS did not have current licenses in D.C., “immediate action was taken to ensure compliance.”
“The care and support for our students’ wellness remains the highest priority for our University community including our leadership, faculty and staff,” Konwerski said.
Konwerski did not say when officials learned two members of the clinic are unlicensed in D.C. University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt declined to say whether officials asked Weisner and Rand to step down.
Neither Weisner nor Rand returned multiple requests for comment. Weisner has declined to sit for a meeting with The Hatchet for more than 18 months.
Fifteen current and former clinicians declined to comment for this story.
Weisner is licensed to practice as a psychologist in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health Professions website. The D.C. Department of Health website lists Weisner’s license in D.C. as “reinstatement pending,” with another license that expired in December 2013.
Ivan Torres, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Health, said all information on the online database is up to date within six days of the office receiving that information. He added that licenses from other states can be transferred to D.C. through an application, but only for short periods of time, like when out-of-state clinicians visit the District for a conference.
Dolores Cimini, an assistant director of university counseling at the University at Albany, State University of New York, said licenses are one way to make sure psychologists meet a certain level of competency, and it’s important for psychologists to be licensed in whichever state or district in which they practice because different regions require different qualifications.
The Virginia Board of Psychology only requires a passing score on a national exam, but D.C. requires all applicants to take a District-specific test, which includes testing practitioners’ knowledge of D.C. statutes and regulations.
Gillian Berry, an associate director of MHS, was named interim director after Weisner’s departure. Berry previously served as an associate director in the clinic and as a liaison to the law school. She is licensed to practice in D.C.
Officials will conduct a national search for a permanent replacement, but a spokesman did not say who would serve on the committee.
“We are confident that Dr. Berry and the rest of the Mental Health Services team will continue to support the mental health and wellbeing of our students, which is and will continue to be our top priority,” Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine said in an email.
A history of turnover
Weisner is the second leader of the counseling center, formerly known as the University Counseling Center, to step down suddenly in recent years.
John Dages, the director of the University Counseling Center before Weisner, stepped down in 2011 after former employees questioned his leadership style and ability. Two months after Dages’ resignation, Barbara Brown, the associate director of University Counseling also resigned.
During the final two years of Dages’ tenure as director of University Counseling, the center saw an 11-employee exodus.
At least eight counselors or clinicians have left MHS since last October – according to analysis of University websites.
Konwerski said there are 21 full-time and part-time clinicians at Mental Health Services, and officials are “hiring more staff.” He said officials have increased the number of full-time clinicians over the last several years and supplement that staff with part-time clinicians.
“Supplementing full-time staff with part-time clinicians enables Mental Health Services to meet student demand,” Konwerski said.
Four staff clinician job openings are currently posted on GW’s jobs website.
Schwartz said centers can sometimes struggle to balance the need for institutional knowledge with a vision for the future – especially after two periods of leadership upheaval at GW’s center.
“You don’t want to see a large percentage of your staff overturning quickly because it’s helpful for clinical staff to have a feel for the institution and the policies and the protocol. Even over time when a director is in place they really get to know who are the key players on campus around the areas connected to mental health,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who specializes in college mental health, also said counseling services at GW are “healing themselves,” and turnover can often happen after tragedy on campus.
Three students died by suicide and one student attempted suicide over the course of 2014. The three suicides occurred within a four-month period, which some experts refer to as a “suicide cluster.” Experts have said it’s hard to point to one specific cause for the clusters because, like in all instances of suicide, the students in these clusters are nearly always facing a range of psychological problems.
“Obviously GW has been through a tough time, and hopefully there’s a core of student service people that can keep things going in a way that’s comfortable and reassuring,” Schwartz said.
After the three suicides, officials installed permanent counseling services on the Mount Vernon Campus, a resource that had not been available before. Students also focused on mental health in the following year, meeting with a suicidologist and pushing for a peer support system, which University President Steven Knapp signed on to in January.
Schwartz said people like the dean of students and other administrators who work with students every day can be vital in referring students to counseling. He said new staff bring “fresh perspectives” to counseling, but need adjustment periods.
He said a staff not “clicking” can also lead to high turnover rates, and bringing new counselors in can help a center gain fresh perspective on how to deal with mental health on campus.
“Sometimes it’s healthy to get some new input and fresh insight and observations. People who have been in the system have an investment in the status quo,” Schwartz said.
A focus on mental health
Weisner was hired in 2012, nearly a year after Dages resigned. He came from Marymount University in Virginia, where he was listed as a licensed clinician on the University’s website. He boasted a history of teaching and developing programs as a staff clinician at George Mason and Marymount universities. His specialty areas include deafness and disability, stress management, gender identity concerns and the intersection of mental health and religion.
Soon after his arrival at GW, administrators began to pour money into improving mental health services on campus, increasing the center’s budget by $150,000 to bring in specialized counselors in 2013. The center brought in five more specialized counselors last year, and it was one of three departments across campus to get a budget increase last year, after University-wide budget cuts. A portion of this fall’s tuition increase will also go to campus mental health resources.
Weisner also instituted a triage system for counseling, which included initial assessments and crisis intervention services on the phone and added group counseling session on topics like eating disorders and LGBT issues. Students with more immediate concerns were also pushed to the tops of waitlists after students complained about having to wait weeks before receiving help.
The center reported more than double the number of students who used walk-in appointments during the 2012‒2013 school year than the previous year. Weisner declined to release the number of walk-in appointments last year.
And at a spring Board of Trustees meeting, Konwerski said officials had seen an increase in individual appointments, psychiatry appointments and after-hours crisis incidents rise over the year.
Over the last two years, MHS has added specialized counselors to the center who focus on specific student populations, like veterans, law students and LGBT students. Officials have said adding those specialized clinicians is one way to stretch resources because each can also serve as generalists if necessary.
This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Gillian Berry was the associate dean of MHS. She is the associate director. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported Berry had previously served as the assistant director at the clinic. She was the associate director. This post was also updated to include an additional comment from Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski. The timeline was also updated to reflect Weisner’s most recent position at Marymount.
This article appeared in the September 28, 2015 issue of the Hatchet.