Content warning: this article mentions mental health and suicide
On the chalkboard outside the Integrated Science Center, there’s a poem called “The Cats Will Know.” It’s dedicated to Paul Soutter, a student at the College of William and Mary who died by suicide in 2015. I must have stood at the chalkboard a dozen times, reading the poem over and over. And every time, it makes me angry.
It’s a running joke among the College community that the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center is a bit “woo woo.” I’ve written before about their panacea-like claims regarding essential oils, not to mention their ongoing reiki practices and vague “wellness” platitudes. People joke about huffing essential oils to “cure their depression,” a dystopian blend of the Gen-Z humor surrounding poor mental health and the legitimate grievances against the Wellness Center itself. We joke about it because it’s easier than facing the real truth: that the Wellness Center isn’t funny, because people have died.
Institutional memory is short at a four-year college — any students who were around in 2015 have long since graduated, so nobody on campus can remember why the Wellness Center was built. But I can tell you why: it’s because four students died in 2015 due to ongoing mental health crises. The Wellness Center started construction in the fall of 2015, just six months after Soutter’s death. The Wellness Center is inextricably tied to the mental health crisis here, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their services.
When asked about Soutter’s death in the Washington Post in 2015, Associate Vice President for Health & Wellness Dr. Kelly Crace “cautioned that it is easy to over-connect academic stress and the risk of suicide.” Frankly, I believe Dr. Crace; he obviously has more expertise on the matter than I do. But don’t you think that the College — the institution where students live, work and study almost 24/7 — has at least a modicum of responsibility for their mental health? Even if it’s an underlying mental health struggle rather than academic stress, the College has a responsibility to uphold the health of all of its students. And that’s simply not happening.
The Wellness Center might seem sleek with its indoor waterfall, meditation rooms and essential oil diffusers, but at the end of the day, it’s a series of performative wellness services without any real changes to the culture and practices of this institution. But whenever students try to critique the wellness facade, to roll up the yoga mats and have a serious discussion about mental health, they are shut down, over and over again.
Last semester, our newsroom published a piece about involuntary hospitalizations — in the past six years, 195 students were hospitalized for mental health reasons, 84 of which were involuntary. Students who talked about suicide or self-harm were shipped off campus to avoid the inconvenient press of 2015 and sent to facilities with questionable COVID-19 protocols and lackluster funding, often against their will. The writer of that piece had to FOIA request the data we published, a lengthy process which ensured that the number of hospitalizations was accurate, as the data came directly from the College itself. I thought that our piece would create change on campus, perhaps inspiring a revision of the hospitalization policy. It did not.
In fact, members of my staff informed me that during Orientation Aide training, Dr. Crace alluded to our article, saying it was ill-intentioned and misinformed. We are not misinformed, Dr. Crace, you just don’t want to face the truth.
This is a pattern that happens over and over again, where students raise their legitimate grievances only to be shut down and gaslit. When students want better access to medications or more counselors or changes to academic policies, they are told they are stupid, incorrect and have no chance at making change here. Because how dare we critique the institution where we spend all of our time.
People had to die for the Wellness Center to be built, and yet it remains on campus as a monument to the flagrant proliferation of “wellness culture” and as a band-aid to institutional change. As much as I love a good yoga class, it won’t help someone in crisis, and neither will hospitalizing them against their will.
To quote from the poem on the ISC chalkboard,
“You will hear words
old and spent and useless
like costumes left over
from yesterday’s parties.”
We are tired of your old, spent, useless words. We have asked again and again for real change, and we have been met with handfuls of oils, care reports and talks about “authentic excellence.” People have died, and it’s not funny anymore.
Claire Hogan ‘22 is a CAMS major and religious studies minor. Outside of her role as Editor-in-Chief of The Flat Hat, she is in Tribe Scribes, Tribe Guard and The Botetourt Squat, and she works for the Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation. Email Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org.