As you walk behind Main Building at the heart of Vassar’s campus, many gorgeous academic buildings stand among a rich, green landscape of trees and flowers. Nestled between Ely Hall, Swift Hall, and the Maria Mitchell Observatory, is Metcalf House. Shrubs line up beside the walkway to the little white door in the brick building. It’s quaint and reserved, sitting in the shadows of the historic buildings around it. “I feel like there’s a mystery to Metcalf,” Jamie*, a student, told me. “I looked around before I went in to see if people could see me going in.” Metcalf is difficult to find, and most students don’t know where it is on campus. The stigma associated with mental illness can often be a crippling obstacle for students seeking to enter the space.
When I started my first year at Vassar, one of the things I noticed about my peers was the prevalence of psychological instability. A study done by the American Psychological Association in 2011 showed that a third of college students experienced “feeling so depressed within the last 12 months that it was difficult to function” and half experienced “overwhelming” anxiety. Most colleges make counseling services available to their students to provide opportunities for psychological support and self-care.
Metcalf houses the Counseling Service along with the Office of Health Education, the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity, and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. According to Dr. Wendy Freedman, the Director of Psychological Services, the goal of the counseling service is to “work in collaboration with the larger community to support the academic mission of the college…[and] to provide psychological services to Vassar College students to promote their personal development, facilitate their academic and social functioning, and increase their coping skills.” The Counseling Service sees about half of all Vassar students by the time they graduate, most commonly for anxiety, depression, and relationship concerns.
Yet, despite the volume of students seen, there is a major rift between the resources provided by the Counseling Service, the changing needs of the student body, and the attention given to Metcalf by the Vassar administration. There is a lack of dialogue on multiple levels, and a more open communication channel needs to be established on all fronts. After a string of difficult circumstances last year, Jamie contacted his Class Advisor to get extensions on his final exams. “She never suggested Metcalf as a resource,” Jamie said. “She just said, ‘I’m so sorry about that.’” If the administration and faculty aren’t willing to acknowledge Metcalf as an effective resource, how are students expected to approach it?
Jamie eventually sought a therapist off-campus. Going off-campus for psychological treatment is a common recommendation of Metcalf’s, but many students find it difficult to make the adjustment. “They ask you for your goals for counseling, and if the goals seem more long term than six weeks, they offer off-campus counseling,” Bianca* said. When she was referred to an off-campus counselor, Bianca was disappointed. “I think I had expected more of a long term option.” Though there are not strict session limits for treatment, Freedman said that students are seen for an average of about four sessions.
In one of her individual visits to Metcalf, Lucy* said, “As soon I got there, we didn’t even talk about what was going on—she just went straight to, ‘Here are people you can see off-campus.’ ” Though Bianca knew that a long-term option was better for her, she told me, “It was stressful for me to be somewhere off-campus every week.” Lucy also found using off-campus resources difficult because she didn’t have a car, and her anxiety issues prevented her from walking to a therapist’s office.
Freedman notes, “If a student does not have the resources to go off-campus for treatment, we will work with the student to either provide treatment in the Counseling Service or to find a viable alternate option.” Unfortunately, most students are taken aback by being sent off-campus, and it is particularly difficult for lower-income students to come forward and ask for help.
For a student like Jamie who is on financial aid and who is limited to the Gallagher Koster insurance offered by Vassar, it is not apparent where to go for help. “You don’t even know what it covers. You have to reach out and ask for it,” Jamie said. He found out that Gallagher Koster covers only one off-campus counseling visit. His parents now pay out of pocket for his psychiatrist. In a school that is becoming increasingly economically and racially diverse, resources on campus like Metcalf need to actively respond to this change with structural reform, not stagnant complacency.
An appropriate and necessary response to Vassar’s new racial and economic diversity would be for Metcalf to play a more active role in helping lower-income students and students of color transition into academic and social life at a predominantly white and privileged institution. We have some programs on campus to help facilitate this dialogue, but the Counseling Service is absent from them. We cannot tout the economic diversity of our campus if we fail to insert new structures to support the mental health of our students through all possible transitions.
In addition, students would benefit from a space that could facilitate support for campus activists. Campus climate last semester was polarizing, and even as a student relatively distanced from the issues, I still felt like I needed extra support and self-care after leaving emotionally charged campus dialogues. Several students even felt that these ongoing dialogues created unsafe spaces. Though the Counseling Service was tersely mentioned in some campus-wide emails debriefing the dialogues, it would have been better for the Counseling Service to have either reached out more directly to students, or to have had a mechanism already in place to mediate these discussions.
Another reason students see a lack of outreach and programming from Metcalf is because they are incredibly short-staffed for the population they serve. According to Dr. Freedman, the Counseling Service currently employs five psychological counselors, one post-doctoral fellow, and two part-time interns. There is also a consulting psychiatrist who has student appointments on most Fridays for about five hours. “They don’t have enough people at all, and it seems a lot of people they do have aren’t equipped to handle issues that most people I know have gone in for,” Lucy told me. “I went in specifically for sexual trauma and [the counselor] would skirt the issue and try to get me to talk about my parents.” In addition, the counselors are often too overbooked for a student to see a counselor who may specialize in a particular issue. Dr. Freedman enthusiastically responded to my questions via e-mail because she did not have time to speak with me in person.
However, positive changes are happening. Recently, younger counselors have been hired, and there are now more people of color on staff. “The people who work there have the intention of helping the student body, but I think a lot of times they’re out of touch with what the student body needs, and that’s not their fault,” Bianca said.
Regarding Metcalf’s budget, Freedman commented: “As with many other administrative offices on campus, the Counseling Service budget has been flat for many years.” However, there has been a steady increase in demand of Metcalf’s services that far surpasses the resources allocated by Vassar. Students have been calling for improvements in our counseling service, and if Vassar expanded Metcalf’s budget, this could help redefine their vision as well as renegotiate their ability to reach out to the shifting needs of the student body. Ultimately, we need Vassar to participate in an ongoing dialogue that prioritizes the mental health needs of an “economically and racially diverse” community.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of these students.