Staff Editorial: Students, keep pushing to improve Mental Health Services

For the past three years, students and officials at GW have talked about mental health almost nonstop. And the conversation still isn’t over.

Even two years after a string of on-campus suicides, mental health is still a salient issue at GW – and it’s safe to say we aren’t done talking about it. In the Student Association election a few weeks ago, presidential candidates Erika Feinman and Christina Giordano and executive vice presidential candidate Thomas Falcigno mentioned mental health in their platforms. The student body elected Feinman, who made improving Mental Health Services’ referral process and reducing the cost of visits a prominent platform plank.

This is an important moment to continue advocating for change. The spotlight is back on mental health right now, since GW has faced a mental health-related lawsuit and a licensing scandal. Now is the time for students and officials to get more creative as they push for improvements to mental health resources.

Officials have already made some of the biggest changes students wanted. They moved the Colonial Health Center to campus, added permanent counseling services to the Mount Vernon Campus, approved former SA President Nick Gumas’ peer counseling program and allocated part of last year’s tuition increase to mental health resources.

Because we’ve already seen such sweeping improvements, ideas about how to continue that progress have gotten stale. For a while, we’ve heard the same suggestions – like making all counseling sessions free, or restructuring the waiting room. And while these ideas are valuable, they feel tired, and don’t address some of the most basic reasons students might not be accessing counseling on campus.

While we understand there are budgetary constraints for all projects, GW has shown a financial commitment to mental health in the past. It was one of just three departments to receive a budget increase last year, and students should take advantage of that momentum to continue calling for more progress.

For example, the MHS website leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is it somewhat difficult to navigate, but it also doesn’t explain much. Nothing on the website mentions GW Listens, the soon-to-be implemented peer counseling program. There’s also no prominent advertising for the Graduate School of Education and Human Development’s counseling services – a low-cost option that allows students to seek treatment from graduate students in clinical training. The website doesn’t even have a frequently asked questions page.

Most importantly, the website fails to explain to students what will happen the first time they visit MHS. Without calling the office or asking a friend, students have very little information about what to expect when they first walk in for a counseling appointment. A website that explains exactly what will happen in the visit, and what their next options are will calm students’ nerves if they’re unsure about seeking counseling.

There are already a few possible models GW could use to build a new website. In 2012, the University launched Haven, which gathered sexual assault resources in one place. After many student requests, the website is currently being revamped. When asked how much those updates will cost, University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt deferred to GW’s budget website, which doesn’t mention Haven. But since GW was willing to improve Haven, there’s a good chance it would be willing to do something similar for mental health resources.

Consolidating everything the University offers into one user-friendly website could encourage more students to access a variety of mental health services. Tulane University, one of GW’s peer schools, has a thorough website that gives students all of the information they need. It lays out a step-by-step process for students, so they know exactly what to expect when seeking counseling. By shopping around and looking at what other schools do, the University could easily build a more useful online resource for students.

Similarly, improving students’ access to counseling doesn’t necessarily require increasing the number of individual sessions a student can have. If GW were able to increase its number of group counseling sessions and create more specialized groups, then the University could reach more students without having to greatly increase its resources.

Currently, GW only advertises six counseling groups on their website, like those that address body image and eating concerns, living with loss and students in recovery. However some of our peer schools offer more groups that are more highly specialized. Tufts University, for example, has nine groups for the spring semester with topics that focus on students’ relationships, support for students of color and intercultural friendships.

At GW, students may benefit from a group session focused on helping freshmen who are acclimating to college, or seniors moving into the “real world” at graduation. In the past, students have also requested a group session for dating violence survivors, which would be more specific than the existing group for sexual assault survivors. Specialization could help MHS reach even more students and make them more comfortable seeking help, if they aren’t ready to meet for a one-on-one appointment yet.

Yes, these changes seem small in comparison to bigger ideas like making all counseling sessions free. And students shouldn’t be afraid to demand that GW continue to prioritize mental health. But GW can also make small changes to help students access existing services before trying to upend the entire system.

By thinking outside the box and modeling our programs on schools similar to ours, we can make changes that help students without costing GW too much money, either.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee, assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer and managing director Eva Palmer.

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