GW students take the lead on mental health resources

On Nov. 14, just less than a week from the tumultuous Election Day 2016, Ben Vinson III, Dean of Columbian College of Arts and Sciences sent out the following email:

The last line, “I invite you to take advantage of the counseling services available within the university,” directs you to the GW Mental Health Services page. While I appreciated receiving this message, I began to think about all the student-led initiatives for mental health that aren’t as well known. This election has caused great distress among the student body; a student body already plagued with substantive mental illness. Although it’s difficult to think of things like this outside the context of a tragedy, it is imperative that we realize that taking care of our mental health should be a priority all the time.

The 2015 Annual Report on Mental Health by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University used data from 138 college and university counseling centers, which included 100,736 college students, 2,770 clinicians and over 770,0000 appointments during the 2014-2015 school year. This particular report was also a summary of the last five years of reporting. Some of the findings, as presented below, show that mental illness is a growing problem among young adults.

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From 2009 to 2015, institution enrollment (as in college/university influx) increased by 5.6 percent, while counselor service seeking increased by 29.6 percent. According to the report, “The demand for counseling center services is dramatically outpacing the growth of institutional enrollment. While this survey did not examine staffing level changes over time, we know that it is rare for counseling centers to experience a 30 percent increase in staffing in just five years, and that most counseling centers did not meet the IACS-recommended paid staff-to-student ratios in 2009.”

“The demand for counseling center services is dramatically outpacing the growth of institutional enrollment. "

In order to meet this demand, students across the country are getting involved. Students at GW are no exception.

One initiative is GW Listens, which is a student-run call center (part of the Student Association) for anyone dealing with a mental crisis. Anastasiya Parvankin, director of GW Listens, gave a full-run down of the program in an email interview. She talked about how the program has been in the works since the three GW suicides occurred in 2014. Nick Gumas, the SA president for the 2014-2015 year, made it part of his campaign platform. Now the program is set to launch in the spring.

There have been other initiatives at GW since then, which include the move of the Colonial Health Center (CHC) from K Street to the Marvin Center and the establishment of mental health services on the Vern. According to Parvankin, “The turnover rates within the CHC are factored into the reasoning why this initiative has taken 2+ years to fully start.”

As of now, there will be two volunteers per shift from Sundays to Wednesdays 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Students in need of assistance will call 202-242-TALK and will be connected with another student who will provide them with resources or just an ear to talk to. Parvankin noted this is not a crisis intervention line. If the conversation gets too extreme, then the student will be connected to other sources, such as GW CHC counselors, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, etc.

At the moment there are 13 GW Listens volunteers and the SA hopes to have about 30 by next fall. In order to become a volunteer one must take a class in the spring semester. Once training is completed, volunteers must work numerous four-hour shifts per month. This program was modeled after services at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

“Sometimes, students hear about bad experiences going to a certain professional or have bad experiences themselves, do not feel like their problems are “serious” enough, do not want to disclose things if it will not be [anonymous], etc., and this hotline will help solve some of those problems on a small scale,” said Parvankin. In order to ensure anonymity, volunteers are not allowed to identify themselves and all GW Listens meetings are held in an undisclosed location. Additionally, when students call in, they aren't asked for any personal information, beyond what they’re willing to share about their particular issue.

“Sometimes, students hear about bad experiences going to a certain professional or have bad experiences themselves, do not feel like their problems are “serious” enough, do not want to disclose things if it will not be [anonymous], etc., and this hotline will help solve some of those problems on a small scale.”

Another student-led enterprise is Let’s Empower, Advocate and Do, Inc. or LEAD. GW sophomore Kyrah Altman co-founded it when she was just a sophomore in high school. With a group of her peers, Altman wrote a 900-page mental health curriculum for high schools her senior year because she felt that her state, Massachusetts, was so progressive, but mental health education was not part of the curriculum. They also worked with state Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan to write S.2114, “An Act relative to the promotion of mental health education in Massachusetts high schools.” This is currently pending in the state house.

Once the founders of LEAD went off to college they decided to continue their work. Altman entered the New Venture Competition in 2016 and won the 2nd grand prize. With the money she won, she was able to turn LEAD into a legal nonprofit and pilot the mental health curriculum in Massachusetts. They also offer Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which is part of the National Council for Behavioral Health. Altman believes she is one of the youngest instructors in the country.

These courses train groups and individuals about how to help people between the ages of 8 and 24 deal with a mental health crisis or substance abuse. Mental health training sessions with LEAD are $100 per person (which the National Council values at $170). For groups of 10 or more they are $75 each.

LEAD now has four interns who assist with the following: reaching out to student organizations, marketing, applying for grants and managing social media. The leadership team and intern staff is spread between GW, Northeastern University, and the University of New Hampshire.

Alicia Young, youth mental health first aid intern, reflected, “As someone who has experienced the challenges that come with living with a mental health disorder, I think that it is vital for people to take mental health/substance use disorders just as seriously as they would take what society recognizes as "physical" illnesses and disabilities.”

GW Listens and LEAD, Inc. are just a few ways that GW students are taking the reigns on the mental illness epidemic prevalent at colleges and universities nationwide.

As stated above, mental illness tends to only come up when there’s a shooting, war, or drug addiction involved. This is not to discredit the awareness and sensitivity such situations need, but rather bring to fruition the notion that there are many types of mental illnesses that people experience in normal, everyday life.

Democrats, Republicans, and everyone in between: many of us are scared for what’s to come in the next four years. The Atlantic’s “How to Cope with Post Election Stress” claimed that, “Those who opposed Donald Trump’s election have been through a collective trauma that has left them feeling rattled and afraid.” The same goes for Trump supporters who “already felt threatened by the loss of jobs and the diversification of their country.”

Putting the emergence of a new administration aside, a (once) seemingly impossible outcome resulted and now we’re shell-shocked. So, whether you need a safe place to discuss your anxieties post-election or any other mental trauma you face, know that GW students have your back.

Putting the emergence of a new administration aside, a once seemingly impossible outcome, happened and now we’re shell-shocked.

All I can hope for the next administration is that the government works in a productive manner to bring mental illness policy to the forefront of healthcare discussion as well as make treatment as accessible as physical care. Initiatives like GW Listens and LEAD, Inc. send a powerful message to the federal government that we, students, are filling a pre-existing need as well as addressing the increased surge post-election.

Special thanks to the Student Association and Let's Empower, Advocate and Do, Inc. for contributing to this article.

Originally published by Courtney Buble on on 11.16.16.

CampusBrandon Bish