The following article elaborates on an impression commonly expressed in a survey conducted with sixty Vassar students. While this perspective was voiced in many responses, it is not representative of every identity. If you have had another experience with Metcalf and Vassar’s mental health procedures, please consider writing and sharing—your voice is valuable. — Jimmy Olney, Sex & Health Section Editor
CONTENT WARNING: Mental Health, Suicide
Many college students struggle with mental health issues. The young adult years are a common time for the onset of mental illnesses—which are, in the overall population, more common than most people believe. Plus, the stressors of college life can exacerbate previously existing mental health problems or make students more vulnerable to them. Of the 33,512 respondents who filled out the most recent National College Health Assessment survey, 10.4% reported that they had “seriously considered suicide” at one point within the past 12 months.
The stigma around mental health makes these issues hard to discuss, and even today there are many misunderstandings about mental health and mental illness. When college administrators do not support students, this places an added burden on those who are struggling; dealing with college life alongside a mental health condition is difficult enough. Based on my own experiences and hearing those of others, I am concerned about the lack of transparency and often seemingly punitive responses of Vassar administrators with regards to mental health. This issue is not limited to Vassar, but is prevalent at many schools around the country.
In September, I met with President Bradley, with another student, to address some of these concerns. We also discussed funding for Metcalf and the AEO. A few days prior to this meeting we sent out a survey for people to anonymously share their thoughts on the topic. The survey consisted of both multiple choice and open-ended, narrative-based questions. There were 60 respondents. I’d like to highlight some major concerns—though this list is in no way all-inclusive—with the way Vassar handles its mental health resources and deals with those struggling with mental health. To protect the privacy of survey respondents, no quotes or specific examples will be used. These do not represent all survey results but do illustrate general trends of the results.
1. Transparency on Leave: Of the 55 survey responses to the question, “If you were experiencing a mental health crisis, would you feel comfortable reaching out to the school’s health and mental health services? Why/why not?” 31 explicitly said they would not feel comfortable doing so. Many respondents expressed fear of punitive responses or negative consequences if the school were to find out they needed crisis resources. I know multiple individuals who have been forced to take a leave of absence. While a voluntary leave can be the best decision for some students, being banned from campus can be detrimental to a student’s well-being and future. Leaves of absence often require a forfeit of tuition and other costs, and can negatively impact a person’s eligibility for financial aid.
For many students, “home” is a toxic, unsafe, or non-existent place, and their support system may be overwhelmingly or exclusively based on campus. Additionally, for many students (though I realize this greatly differs between individuals), academics provide them with tangible goals and a sense of direction, which can greatly help with the recovery process. Fear of these negative consequences often leads people to suffer in silence, instead of reaching out to the resources the school advertises. I, and seemingly many other students, feel that there is a lack of transparency regarding the school’s policies with involuntary leaves of absence. While there is a somewhat vague description of the policy in the student handbook, I wish there was more clarity about where administrators draw the line on the need to remove a student from campus. This lack of transparency has at times made me hesitant to use resources like Metcalf or the counselor on call.
2. Long Wait-Times: Survey respondents reported that they had to wait an average of two weeks to get an appointment with Metcalf. College life and academics are fast-paced, and in such an environment, two weeks is a very long time to wait. I recognize that the school has a limited budget and therefore can only hire so many counselors. However, if the school cannot expand its mental health services, it should be straightforward about the services it can provide, and communicate that clearly to students from the beginning.
3. Affordability: Though I have never experienced this issue myself, multiple survey responses reported that Metcalf has referred them to resources they explicitly stated they cannot afford, rather than discussing alternate options.
4. The AEO: Students have had mixed experiences with the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity (AEO), particularly in requesting accommodations for mental health conditions. Even though the AEO plays a crucial role on campus, many feel that it is understaffed.
5. Lack of Information: Thirty-one respondents (61.7%) felt that the they did not receive sufficient information about the available mental health resources when starting their first year. Furthermore, many of the written responses expressed confusion about how to access certain resources, or what resources to use for what type of issue.
In late October, I met with Wendy Freedman, the director of Counselling Services, to directly discuss some of my concerns. I let her know that personally, based on the information I have, I would feel uncomfortable reaching out to school resources if I were in a mental health crisis. She said students would only be hospitalized for cases in which someone is a threat to others, or their illness has a severely negative impact on other students or the larger community. At Vassar, many clients at Metcalf struggle with suicidal thoughts. Freedman told me that staff only send someone to the hospital if the person is at high risk for suicide and absolutely cannot be kept safe in the short-term. She also said that people are very rarely forced to leave campus, and this situation is not the norm. From this conversation, I gathered that there have been some positive changes recently due to turnover in administrators, particularly in the Dean of Students office. Though I was admittedly reassured by this conversation, this information should be made available to the entire student body.
This is a complicated issue with no perfect solution. I am certainly not an expert on laws concerning mental health in higher education, nor do I know all the inner workings of Vassar’s administration. I am simply a concerned Vassar student who has struggled extensively with mental health throughout my life,including at Vassar. I have seen many people suffer in silence, fearing a punitive response from the school. Even if some of these concerns stem from a lack of clear information and do not “accurately” reflect the reality of Vassar’s policies, they are worrisome and damaging to individuals who are struggling.
I do not wish to dissuade anybody from seeking help, especially if they are in crisis. Many survey respondents reported positive experiences with the school’s resources. However, I would like to see more transparency from Vassar administrators about the school’s policies and the services it can provide. I would also like to see the school evaluate its policies regarding these issues and put measures in place to insure that all parties (Metcalf, the Dean of Studies office, the Dean of Students office, etc.) are acting consistently with the school’s advertised goals and procedures. In doing so, Vassar could help alleviate some of the painful fear and uncertainty involved with mental health issues, allow students to better balance their mental health with their academics, and potentially even save lives.
The Counselor-on-Call can be contacted by calling the CRC (845-437-5221). A record of the call will be on file at Metcalf for continuity of care.
National, non-Vassar affiliated resources include:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line – Text HOME to 741741
- Lifeline Crisis Chat http://www.crisischat.org/