How NYU Wellness Sees Itself — and Why That Image Is Wrong

After recently promoting a questionably-sourced article on the Student Health Center, NPR has misrepresented NYU’s wellness resources, failing to recognize student voices.

WSN Editorial Board

On Thursday, NPR tweeted out an article by WGBH News, a Boston-based radio station, calling NYU’s wellness services “a national model.” The article, the final part of a four-part series, discussed NYU’s response to the problem of mental health on campus. At best, WGBH’s coverage overlooked most of the critical reporting done by WSN and NYU Local. At worst, it painted a misleading picture of the services that NYU does provide and how effective these services are. The article received backlash from NYU alumni and current students, who emphasized how long the Student Health Center has had issues.

Regardless of its failure to note the SHC’s shortfalls, the article is poorly sourced. The Mary Christie Foundation was referenced multiple times throughout, specifically in relation to a quote from its executive director and a survey on mental health services. Nowhere in the article, though, was it mentioned that Zoe Ragouzeos, the executive director of NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Services, sits on the foundation’s board of directors. The article itself has only five sources: Ragouzeos, the Mary Christie Foundation, WGBH’s own legal analyst, a Boston-area psychologist and an NYU senior, who was only quoted on “The Reality Show.” Only one of these sources — the psychologist — can be considered entirely objective. At minimum, it’s concerning that the article has nothing resembling a counterargument; at maximum, it’s irresponsible to only show one side of the SHC’s story.

The original article quotes Ragouzeos to say that NYU has increased the Wellness Center’s budget by 18% over the past three years. However, this statistic can’t be confirmed — NYU has not made this information public. In fact, the university has not given specific information for its budgets at all in recent years. Even the fiscal 2020 budget — which was supposed to be available in June — has still not been released, leaving students with nothing but speculation to figure out how NYU prioritizes and allocates its funding.

It is important to note that the actual number of counselors at the SHC falls below the standard of the International Accreditation of Counseling Services. The organization says that in order to maintain a healthy campus, universities should employ one full-time professional staff member for every 1,000-1,500 students. Currently, NYU only has 34 staff members accessible to all 51,847 New York-based students — which means that if the SHC’s numbers are accurate, they still fall below the national standard. Ragouzeos once told WSN that in order to be doing a good job, NYU only needs to meet the IACS’ bare minimum, but the university isn’t even able to accomplish this.

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One recent example of the ineffectiveness of NYU’s services is the Wellness Exchange app. It was reported that many students find the online therapy to be impersonal and poorly executed. However, WGBH has only good things to say about the hotline, using the fact that the Wellness Exchange received 27,000 calls during 2018 to prove this. But the article does not question why students felt the need to call the hotline 27,000 times over the course of one year or why students called the hotline instead of utilizing the university’s counseling services — possibly because of the month-long wait for an appointment with an SHC counselor.

In addition, SHC counselors are often unlicensed; Ragouzeos told WSN last semester that many of the counselors are in training or are currently earning a degree in social work, and that they present cases to supervisors before continuing to provide care. But because these counselors are unqualified, students might be discouraged from returning after an initial meeting — something that the article takes at face value as indication that the SHC is doing a good job.

The SHC was also recently found to have inflated its staff numbers by 20% for at least three years by neglecting to remove old staff members from its website. Through this, the SHC was misleading students to believe that the center was better prepared than it really was. When WSN inquired about the inaccuracies on the website, the SHC did not respond, and within 24 hours, updated the website to be accurate. One student even claimed that this was a deliberate attempt to cover up the university’s inefficiencies regarding students’ mental health. This stands in stark contrast to WGBH’s reporting, which paints a picture of an overwhelmed staff doing its best to help students.

In possibly the most egregious of its mistakes, the article characterizes the SHC’s critics as both rare and incorrect. “While some students still express discontent that they wait days or weeks for an appointment,” the article reads, “NYU reports the average wait time is 15 minutes for a drop-in session and two weeks for a scheduled appointment.” However, an investigation done by WSN last semester showed this to be far from the case — the wait time a scheduled appointment at the SHC ranges from three weeks to one month, which is above the week-long national university average. 

The SHC’s shortcomings used to be a contained problem — it was up to student journalists and activists to shed light on mistakes and advocate for change. But NPR has not only thrown its hat in the ring, but it’s also declared itself an authority on an issue much bigger than itself. By calling NYU’s counseling services a “national model” and promoting this article, NPR has validated every action taken by the SHC — even those that have harmed students. Aside from the irresponsible reporting done by the writer, the selective information provided by Ragouzeos does not only inaccurately portray the SHC, but ignores all reporting and cries for help by students throughout the past few years. The fight for adequate mental health facilities may need national attention, but NPR and WGBH have decided that they — rather than the students who have been harmed by the SHC’s actions — are able to provide an accurate account of what NYU students face. Ultimately, the answer is still the same: if NYU wants to meaningfully change its wellness resources, they need to start listening to students, not its own self-affirmations. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 25, 2019 print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]

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