Opinion: Repairing the Counseling Center’s broken relationship with AU community starts with building and earning the trust of students

These are the steps the Counseling Center must take

Opinion: Repairing the Counseling Center’s broken relationship with AU community starts with building and earning the trust of students

The Counseling Center has almost always been a source of contention at American University. From students’ vocal dissatisfaction with the quality of care at the Counseling Center to the controversial email sent out by the Office of Campus life in January 2020, the Counseling Center’s reputation on AU’s campus has not been one of great pride. Still, after countless shared experiences and calls for action, the University continues to use wellness as a buzzword rather than making set commitments toward expanding resources and reimagining our Counseling Center. While each controversy may seem isolated, they follow a clear pattern of AU’s neglect of the student voices pleading with faculty to listen and take action.

Our progress and growth as individuals is dependent on the strength and ability of our minds. As an academic institution tasked with preparing students for the next step in their personal and professional lives, concentrated effort and attention must be given to the wellness of students both inside and outside of the classroom. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that has dramatically altered our actions and interactions, this is especially true. But perhaps an equally important issue is the mending of a broken relationship between the Counseling Center and AU students, and the negative narrative that this broken relationship has perpetuated.

Taking action to improve the quality of care at the Counseling Center is just one part of repairing the broken trust between the Counseling Center,in addition to the administration at large, and the AU community. In order for the Counseling Center to move forward with student support, AU must first acknowledge the wrongs of the past. The concerns of students about the quality of care and organization of the mental health services on campus need to be addressed. While it may be happening behind closed doors, the lack of public acknowledgement and unseen communication with students has discouraged many from even approaching the resources many desperately want to have confidence in. When students continue to feel ignored by the administration as their calls for action go unacknowledged, the administration creates a campus environment in which students see no benefit to sharing their negative experiences with the Counseling Center directly. Without any response, students are stuck in an echo chamber, constantly learning about the harm the Counseling Center has caused past students and never being given a reason to believe that their experience might be different.

The Counseling Center at AU is a free, confidential resource, meaning that students from all across the world, students who may not have access to health insurance or the financial means that allow them to seek help elsewhere, and students who are fearful or embarrassed of disclosing their need of mental health counseling to family members or guardians, look to AU as a welcoming safe haven. When these students hear these negative experiences and see no response from the Counseling Center, a service that should be a safe haven becomes a questionable resource. Not only does this discourage students from using the Counseling Center, but they are also left helpless, unconfident in any of the wellness resources AU may offer.

Currently, there is no formal, direct line of communication between the leaders of the Counseling Center, as well as the University’s mental health and wellness resources at large, and the students themselves. The only way for the campus community to know about the developments and improvements of the Counseling Center is through emails from members of the AU administration. However, when this information is distributed, it often gets lost in a sea of daily updates from a variety of administrators that enter students’ inboxes. When updates are mentioned, they are buried in a sea of other announcements included in the message.  

In order for real change to occur, there must be a comprehensive partnership between students, faculty, administrators and the Counseling Center. While many issues with the Counseling Center must be addressed meticulously, there are small steps students and the administration can take immediately that will have positive, meaningful and long-lasting impacts on every member of the AU community.

We should all share the goal of connecting all members of the AU community with the mental health resources we deserve.

Here's how we can get there:

  • The Counseling Center information page must be more accessible with consideration to the organization of links. This includes making a more efficient scheduling and form processing system. Students should be able to easily find and schedule appointments with the Counseling Center.
  • The leaders within the Counseling Center should routinely send a University-wide email to all faculty and staff members at the beginning of each semester, giving them detailed information about the Counseling Center, and how to proceed if students approach them with concerns about mental health. It should also be mandatory that this information is not only listed on the syllabus, but also updated with accurate information based on the operating status of the University.
  • The Counseling Center must designate a student liaison to ensure that the center and the administration are aware of the posts and articles that amplify student voices. The student liaison should also be tasked with responding to these concerns in a timely fashion and frequently communicating the tangible progress the Counseling Center is making to students.
  • The Counseling Center should be discussed at length during orientation. These programs should work to debunk myths about the Counseling Center and answer questions students may have about services and appointments. Providing this information prior to students’ arrival on campus allows them to build trust in the Counseling Center and have more confidence in using the services offered.
  • The Counseling Center should foster partnerships with student organizations to bring their services to students outside of closed doors or computer screens. This also includes town hall meetings at least once a semester that actively work to ensure that student concerns are being heard and addressed.
  • AU must invest time and energy into promoting the wide variety of wellness resources available to students that may supplement or be a substitute to students’ use of the counseling center.
  • Most importantly, the University must take action by formulating and distributing 2-3 year plans that address how the Counseling Center is working toward satisfying students’ demands. This includes, but is not limited to, specific tangible commitments (money, time, physical space) to creating a state-of-the-art facility which houses HPAC, the Student Health Center and the Counseling Center. This facility should not only be a centralized location for all health-related services, but also be a space where students feel welcomed and not worried about passing their peers. This expansion will also give the Counseling Center the means to increase the number of therapists on-site and thus increase appointment availability. Wellness resources should be a top priority in long-term planning, not just a consideration.

Repairing broken trust is not easy, it is not something that is given, but rather earned. We are not asking for much, but what we are asking for matters. We must be heard. Change must be made.

Maanasi Natarajan is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle, and Max Rubin is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.

mnatarajan@theeagleonline.com, mrubin@theeagleonline.com

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