On the first day of study week, the current and future TLC leaders were called in for a meeting with our administrative advisors to discuss the work we had done this year, and potential restructuring for the following year. Once everyone had said their hellos, exchanged sad thoughts about how soon the key leaders would be graduating, and commiserated about how hectic this time of the year was, our advisors informed us that we, along with the other peer-lead counseling service, CARES, would not be allowed to be on call past the end of this semester. Conversations had been going on for a few weeks, and our advisors were only made aware of the discussions a week and a half before the decision was finalized.
For Vassar’s administration, the major problem of our hotline is liability, an issue that TLC and everyone involved in the organization has long been aware of and has taken steps to ameliorate. The issue of liability is that as soon as a student on call picks up the phone, the leaders of the organization, their licensed advisors, and the school itself are all in part responsible if harm comes to the caller. This is a huge risk that everyone involved in TLC has always taken. We’ve kept ourselves informed, and have never taken this responsibility lightly. Suddenly, Vassar has decided that this risk is too high to bare.
These risks were discussed by the administration, without TLC and CARES ever being made aware that the conversations were taking place. Had TLC been given the opportunity to participate in these conversations, we would have highlighted the 8 high-risk calls students felt comfortable making to us over the past year, which enabled them to get professional help. We would have reminded them of the 125 students helped by TLC in addition to the work done by CARES. We would have reminded them of the vital security students have in knowing that there is always a student on call, there to listen, if they need to reach out. We would ask them to consider the greater likelihood of facing issues of liability when student’s resources in times of crisis are reduced.
Most importantly, we would have reiterated issues with mental health care on Vassar’s campus that have yet to be addressed. Metcalf and local counseling services are saturated with students trying to get the mental support that they need. As a partial solution to this dilemma, Metcalf has begun to lead several support groups focused on key issues, which have also become booked to the point that another group could be formed of individuals on the waitlist. While there are discussions of a 5 year expansion plan of Vassar, that includes ideas regarding a new inn or pub, what exactly is the plan for expanding mental health for 2,500 students beyond 4 trained professionals? Metcalf is currently so understaffed that counselors on call must come from outside the school’s own network. In other words, rather than facing the liability of informed, willing students helping their peers, the school is putting their faith in outsourced individuals existing miles away from campus, completely removed from what it means to be a student at Vassar College, to be involved in our mental care. These counselors on call are not affiliated with Vassar beyond their on call shift, and do not aid Metcalf in any way beyond shouldering the burden of providing a 24-hour service. The key difference in terms of liability between services like TLC and CARES versus these outsourced call centers appears to be that these professionals are just separate enough from Vassar to remove some of the liability from the school were something to go wrong. However, the tradeoff just happens to be that this could lead to more high risk calls becoming high risk actions. Between these failures and the removal of almost 25% of mental health resources made available to freshmen when they enter Vassar, there is now an even larger gap for students to fall through.
By dismantling peer hotlines on our campus, the college may be shielding itself from risk, but it’s passing that risk onto students who are in need of mental health resources and now cannot get the specific help they may need. We’ve also been informed that this decision might eliminate the administrator on call (AOC) and threaten the House Advisor program as a whole. Generally speaking, House Advisors are some of the more trusted administrators by students on campus. As peer-listeners, we can’t help but notice the widening disparity between what the student body needs, and what the administration provides. We’ve seen an unprecedented amount of calls this year about anxiety and distrust from the student body with the administration. We’re commonly asked in calls whether Metcalf is a safe place to ask for help, or whether there’s even a chance that administrators will understand what they are going through. Where are these students supposed to go for help? It is difficult for us as peers to confidently refer students who are struggling, when the administration continues to show a disregard for students’ mental health. By recognizing and documenting a growing need in mental health resources from the student body, but disposing of peer support, especially ones that are anonymous, the administration has sent a clear message about its stance.
When the administration made it clear that TLC would no longer be on call, the next logical discussion was about what TLC would look like next year. It became apparent that the administration wanted us to become educators, advising students on how they can take care of their own mental health needs, although this has never before been our role. They have a vision for TLC that includes educating, but not listening, which goes directly against TLC’s mission to be there for students in times of need. We, the members of TLC, wanted to explore any and all possible avenues for continued peer-to-peer listening, as we consider this a vitally important and impactful way to help our fellow students. All of this being said, we are much less concerned about losing our ability to be on call than we are for the continued lack of resources for students. If TLC can no longer be on call, we hope this sends a message to students, staff and administrators to recognize that our institution is under-serving the health and wellbeing of its student body.
It is clear to us that the administration does not know how they want to proceed. They have no well-formed plans on what resources they will be replacing us with, if any, what “non-professional” support will look like going forward, or even how they want to break this news to the student body. This is why we, an organization that tries to be relatively private and anonymous, has taken it upon ourselves to inform students of their decision. Time and time again we are told by administration about how awestruck they are with the emphatic responses they have received from organizations, alumnae/i, students, faculty and more. They have made it clear that they are open to exploring options moving forward, if we come to them with suggestions. Thus, as members of the Vassar community, we see this as our opportunity to demand adequate mental health resources for students moving forward. Our voices as advocates for students’ mental health can band together and shape future resources for the better. In the wake of an administration with no realized plan, we have the perfect opportunity to let them know how they can do better. We know that the mistake to take TLC off-call will be an opportunity to reform a broken mental health support system at Vassar College, and to hold the administration accountable for its failures to support our student body. Our voices all deserve to be heard, and they will be.