Five months after Dartmouth pledged to bolster mental health support on campus, students reflect on how effectively these changes address weaknesses in the College’s mental health infrastructure.
Few would disagree that mental health has become a critical issue on campus. Last year saw the sharp increase of rates of anxiety and depression in students, as well as with four deaths among the student body, three of which were by suicide among the Class of 2024. An investigation by The Dartmouth last July confirmed that the College’s existing mental health infrastructure was insufficient to handle this rise in mental health struggles on campus, although College President Phil Hanlon pledged in an email to campus last May — days after the death of Elizabeth Reimer ’24 — to increase mental health support. Now, months later, students are wondering whether the administration delivered on its promise.
In his email, Hanlon outlined that the College planned to immediately — that evening — add a second on-call nurse to “minimize the chance that calls will be routed to voicemail.” He also promised that there would be two new counselors and a student wellness coordinator added “as soon as possible.”
Currently there are 13 counselors servicing Dick’s House, up from 12 this past July. Dick’s House Counseling Center director Heather Earle confirmed in an emailed statement that the College has hired another counselor who will begin a four-year position beginning in January 2022.
Earle also wrote that in January, Dick’s House will “begin a national search for two Suicide Prevention & Outreach Specialist/Counselor.”
Last year, the shortage of counseling staff proved to be an issue as some students faced long wait times or found themselves routed to voicemail in times of crisis. Despite the College’s commitment to hiring new counselors, some students, like Anastasia Bryan ’24, have noticed that the problem persists.
“I know that they’ve since hired more staff, but I don’t think it even fixed the [counselor shortage] issue, because when I reached out [to Dick’s House], I still had to wait almost an hour to talk to anyone this year,” Bryan said.
Further, Hanlon announced in May that the College would partner with the JED Foundation, which he characterized as “a nonprofit that works to protect emotional health and promote suicide prevention for teens and young adults.” This fall, Dartmouth launched the first phase of its partnership with the JED Foundation. On Oct. 20, JED sent out a “Healthy Minds” survey to students, which is designed to gather information about student perspectives on the campus’ mental health policies and climate. It has also formed interdisciplinary committees featuring students, faculty and senior leadership. These committees are tasked with devising plans to support student mental health needs.
Jessica Chiriboga ’24, a student member of one of the JED Foundation’s committees, emphasized the importance of the current “brainstorming stage.” While students frequently call for increased counselors or a better crisis hotline — among other mental health fixes — these solutions don’t always fully address root issues that exacerbate the mental health situation on campus, such as the “distrust between students and mental health resources.”
Chiriboga said that these committee discussions provide a forum to consider these deeper fundamental questions that are not always comprehensively addressed by casual conversation.
“We can’t just ask questions that are like, ‘Why do you distrust?’ We need to know that answer too, but we need to probe even deeper to figure out what exactly are the reasons,” Chiriboga explained. “We need to find the reasons and more creative solutions than the ones we’ve considered before to solve the distrust.”
While some students applauded the College’s partnership, some — like Opinion writer Spencer Allen ’23 — confessed they see the partnership as a “total sham,” as Allen wrote in a column last week.
Nicolas Macri ’24, on the other hand, is conflicted — acknowledging that while this investigation phase is important, he is discouraged by the lack of tangible change in the College’s policies.
“Sure, I think conducting research is a good thing to form their decision — I understand that,” Macri said. “Part of the JED Foundation’s business is that they’re conducting a survey so that they can then respond with recommendations. But I think … we already know what the issues are. You know, the lack of enough counselors, the lack of long term care, the terrible medical leave policy. Dartmouth still hasn’t shown any interest in addressing those. That’s a big issue.”
Bryan expressed similar sentiments, explaining that her only engagement with the JED Foundation thus far has been through the Healthy Minds survey. Although she is “hopeful” that there will be real changes to mental health infrastructure, she added that she doesn’t necessarily feel that employing an outside organization is the most efficient way to address mental health problems at the College.
“I feel like real change comes from identifying areas in which students are unhappy and fixing those with students — not partnering with an outside organization and making everyone fill out a survey,” Bryan said.
However, Chiriboga is confident that this initial discussion phase is only the beginning, and that concrete improvements for mental health will eventually follow.
“I’m not really sure what is going to be the full scope, but I do know that policy changes will come,” she said. “It’s an absolute — they will come — it’s just ‘when’ is not certain and how they come is also not certain.”
In these committee meetings, Chiriboga said there has been considerable discussion about “pretty much everything that relates to student wellness and health, in terms of policy.” She noted how committee members were able to provide feedback on the medical leave policy and the good samaritan policies, among others.
From her perspective as a student working directly with the JED Foundation, Chiriboga says she can envision these committee meetings fostering improvements to campus mental health — although she acknowledges this progress isn’t always obvious to the wider student population.
“I think that [the brainstorming phase] is going at a pretty acceptable rate, but I think what could be better is how we engage students in this process,” Chiriboga said. “I think that the approach so far has been bringing in students before our meetings — and that’s something I’ve tried to do — but I think that it hasn’t been as all encompassing as we had hoped.”
For now, it seems only time will tell whether the partnership with the JED Foundation or increased counseling support this winter will prompt any tangible improvements to the campus mental health infrastructure.
In the meantime, students like Macri remain frustrated by the slow progress visible to students.
“[Dartmouth] responded late, and they haven’t delivered anything yet. They have future promises, but a lot of those are slow and delayed,” Macri said. “They want to academically identify problems, but the problems that have already been identified otherwise have still not been resolved.”