Georgetown knows how to improve mental healthcare—it just hasn’t done it

November 20, 2021

Illustration by Deborah Han

It’s that time of the semester. Students, overwhelmed by midterms, burnout, and personal challenges, need mental health resources. The collegiate conversation around mental health happens like clockwork: Students call for increased focus on mental health at their universities, administrations make promises to improve mental health access, and then the issue dips beneath the radar again. This is what we see at Georgetown; as psychological demands on students grow, so does the gap between community needs and the steps taken to address them. It’s time the university changes its approach to mental healthcare by paying attention to the needs of all its students and ensuring they have the funding to access resources. 

The problem of insufficient mental health resources is endemic to higher education. While the university may not cause mental illness, its culture prioritizes measurable achievement like grades and resume-building over healthy practices. The resulting statistics need little explanation: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college-aged Americans, and nearly a third of college students experience depression.

University systems’ faults in addressing mental health are visible in their language. Mental health and self-care are used as buzzwords to avoid addressing the underlying issues: mental illness and community neglect. Georgetown’s tips for improving mental health often amount to “take a moment, and then get over it.” The language frames well-being as an individual pursuit, where mental illness is attributed to a student’s inability to take care of themselves, rather than treated as any other diagnosed illness. The language ignores the communal and, more importantly, university responsibility for its members.

The wait times at Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), for instance, are unacceptably long; though the office promises swift initial consultations, students regularly wait months for a follow-up appointment. These delays discourage people from seeking help in the first place, instead turning to informal support networks of their fellow students. While student organizations like GERMS, Project Lighthouse, and Active Minds support their peers, they are often unable to do more than refer students to the same broken services.

The pandemic only exacerbated the system’s shortcomings: Months of isolation and virtual learning compounded pressures on student health. Georgetown adapted its offerings through  

virtual counseling services, like HoyaWell, but licensing issues and limited reach hamstrung these efforts. Georgetown’s support network similarly fell short with the return to campus. Students faced disconnected phone numbers to Health Education Services (HES), CAPS became inundated with students looking for appointments, and key staff positions—including CAPS director and HES interpersonal violence education and training specialist—remained unfilled.

Access to care and accommodations is also uneven. Whether in funding for these positions or students’ ability to take advantage of mental healthcare, finances play a massive role in student well-being on campus. Socioeconomic status determines the options students have for outside support. Students could avoid long wait times and access long-term care by going to DMV psychologists, but there is a high barrier: The average cost of therapy in D.C. is $229 per session. 

Moreover, undergraduates’ mental well-being is subject to their professors. In the absence of standard university guidelines for extensions and accommodations beyond those guaranteed by the Academic Resource Center, student experiences hinge on faculty. Forced to make a case to their professors for extensions on assignments or accommodations, students may feel pressure to “sell” their mental health, sharing more than they feel comfortable. And, with end of term evaluations largely unheeded, students who would raise issues with the pressure lack avenues for feedback.

Georgetown must do more to support its entire student population, including accommodating a wide range of experiences.

The demands of the Black Survivors Coalition (BSC) and others, which include the need to prioritize hiring staff of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, shows the importance of the relationship between identity and mental healthcare. Working through race- or gender-related trauma can be exponentially more difficult with counselors who do not share the student’s background. While CAPS recently hired four new clinicians, the university has given scant updates about diversifying the counseling staff by hiring more people of color and LGBTQ-identifying people with expertise in issues of identity and racial or gender trauma.

Further, the free access to community mental health providers that came out of BSC activism are only guaranteed through spring 2022.

The university can make tangible changes to the way it addresses mental health. Accessibility must be at the forefront of efforts to improve resources on campus. The free community mental health providers may have been a temporary step to address a longstanding issue in Georgetown’s network of care, but in order to cement its progress, the university must improve the internal capacities of CAPS and HES to provide tailored help.

This change requires a conscious emphasis on accessibility and civic responsibility when looking to fill positions and when considering the larger mental healthcare system. If CAPS continues to function as a short-term care organization, it must consider the costs of external long-term care when it refers students off campus. To address the inequity, students on GUSA’s mental health policy team have long advocated for endowing the student mental health fund, which the university has not implemented and still funds on an annual basis. The Georgetown Scholars Program, which serves first-generation and low-income students, created a Necessity Fund, in part to offset the costs of healthcare and mental health services, but the burden cannot be on that program alone.

In lieu of amending the CAPS model to include long-term care, the university should enable any student to seek off-campus help instead, by endowing and advertising a sizeable fund to cover any and all costs of DMV area providers rather than leave the responsibility to individual programs. 

Improving accessibility also requires an examination of how information about services is disseminated to the student body. There should be an intentional effort to define available support at CAPS, HES, and elsewhere from the very first day of orientation. The university can also improve visibility on campus, especially with CAPS and HES offices located off the beaten path under Darnall Hall and in Poulton Hall, respectively.

The issues with the current system are easily diagnosed: Student, faculty, and staff activists have enumerated the problems and proposed solutions for years. We know what we need to do to improve mental health, but the gap between knowledge and action still needs bridging. Students are, and have been, suffering. It’s time Georgetown did something to change that.

Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead. The Board strives to publish critical analyses of events at both Georgetown and in the wider D.C. community. We welcome everyone from all backgrounds and experience levels to join us!

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