Mental health: progress over platitudes
Written by Chris Weber and Jack Powers|
April 20, 2015
Suicide isn’t unique to the College of William and Mary, so why does it feel like it is? There is an impulse to question our Counseling Center’s perceived failings in light of recent tragedies. To argue a direct link between the Counseling Center and suicides is erroneous; denying any association of the two is asinine.
The College must reevaluate how it treats a problem far more pervasive than suicide: reducing the stigma surrounding mental health is important, but falls short of addressing another important stigma — that of the Counseling Center itself.
The College deserves — and must demand — a more accessible, effective Counseling Center.
From a limited, outside perspective, it’s a sad and simple story of imbalanced proportions: over 8,000 students to only seven licensed psychologists. It’s easy to see why underfinancing is seen as the crux of the Center’s problems. Donations by the Senior Class are an admirable gesture that, no doubt, will help the Center address its deficiencies internally. However, rather than giving blindly and ridding ourselves of the issue, we must try to shape the conversation about tangible issues and solutions.
Does the Counseling Center need more funding? Is the stigma a result of diminished resources? There is no quick answer. But money won’t erase the stigma — the Counseling Center must adopt wholesale changes to address its shortcomings.
The complexity of mental illness and its manifestations, added to the opacity of the everyday operations of the Counseling Center, makes proposing on-campus mental health service improvements difficult. The workings of the center shouldn’t remain shrouded in mystery to the average student. Confidentiality is important, and often legally required, but accountability is essential for the center to be effective.
Changes should start with eliminating obstacles to treatment — and there are many. For starters, a two-week wait time is a twisted joke that doesn’t fit any semblance of a competent organization. Then there is the prevalent impression that a visit to the Counseling Center can result in being kicked off campus, another source of the center’s stigma. Solutions do exist and they seem feasible.
Offering immediate initial assessments, either via phone or brief in-person clinical assessments, would make the center more effective by reducing the number of students who fall through the cracks. Rather than greet each student with a two-week delay, immediate assessments would give the student confidence that someone does care, that someone does have time to help.
Even with a seemingly small, understaffed Counseling Center, implementing a structure to provide immediate assessments is possible. Schools with similar staff-to-student-body ratios have already taken the initiative.
Harvard, the University of North Carolina and Virginia Tech have instituted some variation on this “open-door” policy. The College of William and Mary, on the other hand, is, as in recent years, working at glacial speeds in improving mental health services. If this is the growing consensus for ideal care, what reason does the Counseling Center have for abstaining?
Another obstacle is potential expulsion. Called “Medical and Emotional Emergencies” in the student handbook, but commonly known as “getting kicked off of campus for mental health reasons,” this policy — with frequent, swirling stories of its application — is the oft-talked about but little understood bogeyman behind the Counseling Center’s sour reputation.
According to the handbook, the policy is applicable when a student “attempts suicide, makes a threat or gesture of suicide, harms or attempts to harm himself or herself or others, or undergoes severe emotional or psychological distress.” Once initiated, the student is barred from classes and college activities and their student ID is disabled. Only the Dean of Students can reinstate a student.
Such a policy is inevitable and understandable; however, this “emergency” procedure should be defined more precisely and used more judiciously so as not to prevent students from seeking consultation. The loose definition for who could qualify, especially in the final part of the clause, leaves room for wide discretion in application.
There must be a greater balance between campus safety and student confidence in the Counseling Center’s ability to deal with reported self-harm — theoretical or actual. Research statistics suggest suicidal ideation very rarely leads to violence against others.
Kelly Crace, the associate vice president for health and wellness and the director of health promotion, told The Flat Hat that the Counseling Center plans to implement two new services for students: ProtoCall and Therapist Assisted Online. Both would be welcome additions, especially as the former would replace the current after-hour call system that involves campus police.
Proposed policies like these are steps in the right direction and precede planned campus talks about mental health. Such discussions are fine, but too often simplify complex issues without offering tangible solutions. Campus conversations in the wake of tragedy often devolve into abstract ideas over how to improve our community, as citizens and as students. If we can all be better, more kind, than the problem will solve itself according to the common dialogue.
Of course, kindness is a virtue, but it’s only so effective in dealing with deep psychiatric disorders. Yes, a reminder that the universe isn’t always indifferent is nice every now and again, but community deficiency doesn’t explain why well-liked College students take their lives.
Let’s not pretend that we understand what students with mental health disorders are going through. Instead, let’s make it easier for them to get the professional help they deserve.
Just invoking the mantra “One Tribe, One Family” is the kind of laziness that only works in a virtual reality like Facebook and Washington Post op-eds. It’s ultimately inconvenient: Those who most need to believe in it likely don’t, while those who do believe in it don’t need to. Platitudes won’t prevent suicides, but concrete steps might.
Grounds crews whitewashed fences outside the Wren Building before Day for Admitted Students earlier this month, weaving in with the rest of our beautiful campus for a crackling image of endless possibility. Days later, a senior Flat Hat reporter got lost on an assignment. She was looking for the Counseling Center.