Mental Health Services nearly doubles staff size

by Lillianna Byington | Contributing News Editor 

Issue: August 28, 2016 | News

The staff of Mental Health Services has almost doubled since the spring.

The counseling center has hired 10 new staff members, including counselors that specialize in working with minority and veteran students. These hires come after a year of leadership and staff turnover within the center.

Gillian Berry, who has served as the interim director of MHS since last September, said in an email that MHS has been recruiting staff since the spring to hire diversity and military services coordinators, a clinical services coordinator and a senior staff psychologist. 

Six staff clinicians joined the center at the beginning of this month, Berry said.

“All of these positions provide direct support and counseling services to students,” Berry said. “We worked with campus partners and students during our hiring process.”

Diversifying the staff
Zoeann Finzi-Smith, who was hired in the spring, is a staff clinician and the diversity services coordinator. She previously served as a postdoctoral clinical fellow at MHS, according to an archived version the center's website. 

The diversity services coordinator position was announced last year in an effort to create a more inclusive environment and hire specialized counselors.

Finzi-Smith works with the Multicultural Student Services Center and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement to discuss programming and assess student needs, Berry said. 

Berry said that this role requires developing targeted programs, including a weekly event at the MSSC during which any students can drop by. Finzi-Smith also handles walk-in hours and group counseling sessions for "underserved populations."

Louise Douce, who served as the director of the Ohio State University’s counseling center for 23 years, said having a diversity counselor can help students feel more comfortable using the center, but that offering those resources won’t necessarily work for every student. It should be a goal for every therapist at a center to be “multicultural confident” and for a center to have an overall diverse staff, she said. 

“If you don’t have a diverse range of people — and, actually, a range of languages — in your center then you are not going to be seen as a place to go for people who are struggling,” Douce said. “Often people who are from traditionally marginalized groups are marginalized on campus and that really affects their ability to succeed.” 

Offering veterans services
Jennifer Mostafa joined the MHS staff as a military services coordinator and staff clinician in the spring. The position had been vacant for about 11 months before Mostafa was hired.

Sarah Skelton, who served as the former veteran student services coordinator, was one of five MHS clinicians to file a formal complaint with the D.C. Department of Health against the former director of GW’s counseling center for practicing without a D.C. license. She left the center in September, according to archived versions of the center's website.

Berry declined to comment on how the center served military students while the military services coordinator position was vacant. 

Yannick Baptiste, the president of the GW Veterans, said in an email that MHS involved GW’s military office in the interview process and evaluation of the candidates for the position. 

Mostafa is not only a designated resource, but a trained clinician with experience counseling military members and is a current service member, Baptiste said. She has come to recent internal GW Veterans Accelerate Learning Opportunities and Rewards Program meetings, he said.

He added that Mostafa is more accessible than traditional counseling services, which could potentially increase GW's retention of military-affiliated students.

“If their work can alleviate the stress in our students, prevent students from dropping out or prevent the loss of a life, I do not believe ‘benefit’ would be a strong enough word,” Baptiste said. “Higher education can be extremely stressful and veterans are not immune to that.”

Impact on the center
The center is still missing its top leader. Silvio Weisner, the former director of MHS, stepped down suddenly last September after officials found he was not licensed to practice psychology in D.C. After 11 months, the position still has not been filled. 

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that GW's student affairs division, along with the provost’s office, launched a search for the executive director of the Colonial Health Center, who will oversee MHS. The division was one of several reorganized in a series of budget cuts announced this summer. 

“A recent reorganization of the Division of Student Affairs presented an opportunity to re-imagine this role,” Csellar said. 

She said that Keeling and Associates, a higher education consulting firm, is leading the search.

Officials declined to comment on when they hope to name a director, what stage the search is in, how many candidates have been interviewed and what traits they are looking for in candidates for the position. 

Nance Roy, a clinical director at The Jed Foundation and an assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said there are pros and cons to making hires before finding a permanent director. Although a director could view the amount of hires as an unsteady staff, it could be appealing for a new director to develop the new staff, she said.

“It is ideal if the director has a voice in the new hires, but they don’t want a delay in hiring more staff especially with the start of school upon us,” Roy said. “The trade-off would be that you don’t have the robust staff that you now have."