Conversations about campus mental health are usually obsessed with the idea of providing and encouraging students to use campus resources. The number of resources available to College of William and Mary students has increased incredibly over the last five years. Resources like the initiatives at the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, the Counseling Center, the Haven and student organizations dedicated to these issues are at the height of both participation and effectiveness. On that front, the College has a lot to be proud of, but of course as these resources become higher quality and students learn more about the benefits, some of them become more difficult to access. This problem of capacity is often at the center of our conversations surrounding mental health, but as the College figures out how to maximize the performance of these resources, it must confront how its own policies affect student mental health.
As much as I want to solve the aforementioned capacity issue, there is a grave need to begin holding the College accountable for policies contributing to negative mental health outcomes. The blame of so-called “stress culture”and the responsibility to do the cultural work to decrease its prevalence on campus is placed on the students. Despite the need to decrease “stress-culture,” conversations beyond providing the mental health resources to do so are void of placing ownership for the College’s mental health situation on the school itself. This became clear to me upon receiving the Provost’s email on pass/fail. The administration had already made its choice and sent a wave of anxiety and uncertainty throughout our campus. This brought me to think about all the ways in which the College is failing to meet its students in the middle on the issue of mental health. If the school is serious about combating the growing mental health issues on our campus, then it must lead with such a lens in all of its policy decisions. If we’d looked at policy from a mental health lens, the administration’s responses to issues such as naming and renaming, dining, housing and pass/fail would have been drastically different.
Naming and renaming would be seen as beyond the historical image of the College, it would be about expressing support for the sense of belonging, safety and respect for our students of color and their allies. Myself and many of my fellow students felt unimportant and ignored following the finalized report on renaming.
Issues of dining would no longer be about contracts and obligations, and the College would do everything in its power to quell student dissatisfaction. There would be efforts to renegotiate with Sodexo so that students are no longer forced to have a dining plan. This would force Sodexo to expand the options available and respond more quickly to student complaints, as it would force the over $20 billion company to compete. It is no secret that good food contributes to positive mental health outcomes, and that many students move off-campus to escape the meal-plan mandate.
The housing issue would no longer be about dismissing the competition of off-campus complexes, nor maintaining the tradition of dorm living, but instead it would be grounded in allowing students the freedom to choose. Specifically, it would allow sophomores to live elsewhere if the on-campus options don’t meet their personal needs. Students feeling that their dorms are uncomfortable or imprisoning is commonplace here, and that is because the College has not upgraded its housing, nor lowered its prices to respectfully compete with options off campus.
The pass/fail debate would no longer be about what the administration deems a reason to take a course pass/fail. It wouldn’t be about hiding behind the idea of “wellness days,” as the cure for COVID-19 related anxiety, especially since “wellness days,” for my friends, have mostly operated as “catch-up” days. It would no longer be about ensuring a smooth return to our outdated system, or about maintaining ideas of tradition or academic fortitude. It wouldn’t attempt to direct everyone to our swollen mental health resources. It would center the emotional needs of our students, who are battling situations that create stress, anxiety, and depression in immeasurable ways. It would be about realizing that grades are not everything and suspending “stress culture,” once and for all. If the university centered mental health issues around its policy choices, the Provost’s email would have provided reasons to why taking letter-grade classes is important for job and graduate school placement, then stated something like, “The administration believes that William & Mary students are hardworking students, who have the capacity to make calculated decisions for both the needs of their present and future.”
The College must center mental health issues in their policy choices. We must reprioritize policy in campus mental health conversations.
Shane Moran ’21 studies government and English. He serves as a Pedagogical Fellow with the Center for Liberal Arts, a Government Diversity Fellow, a Wellness Ambassador, Undersecretary of Multicultural affairs, and Chairperson of the Committee for Contextualization of Campus Landmarks and Iconography. Email Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org.