Cunningham and Nevel: Making Campus Safe for All

by Tori Nevel and Frank Cunningham | 4/29/15 6:39pm

Students at Dartmouth often suffer silently, alone, unaided by peers and the College either because they fear to come forward or because the College does not offer the services they require. Issues of mental health are often brushed aside at Dartmouth or outright ignored — these are not just personal issues, however, but a broader struggle that undermines academics and campus-wide safety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 30 percent of college students said they were “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year and that suicide is the third leading cause of death for young adults aged 15 to 24.

Mental health is a pressing issue here at Dartmouth. The College’s unique circumstances — the D-Plan with its fast-paced academic schedule and the inconsistency it creates in students’ support systems — make the lives of struggling students more difficult still. Roughly a quarter of students attend counseling services each year according to the Counseling and Human Resources department webpage, but that number is a tithe of those who truly need help. That Dick’s House places limitations on counseling appointments but not general medical appointments indicates “a willingness to acknowledge physical health and not mental health,” Movement Against Violence operations director Rebecca Schantz ’16 said. How can students be expected to recover, to build up a bastion of good mental health, when their own college cannot even provide them with the necessary number of contact hours with a counselor?

Issues of mental health do not stand alone — survivors of sexual assault on college campuses are more at risk for mental health-related disorders and existing issues can be compounded by the distress brought on by sexual assault. Nearly one-third of survivors of assault develop post-traumatic stress disorder sometime during their life. Last year, the White House Council on Women and Girls found that survivors were almost five times more likely to have lifetime major depressive episodes and four times as likely to contemplate suicide than were non-victims. But it isn’t just women who are at risk — violence can affect all genders. Untreated childhood trauma from violence and abuse increases risks of perpetration and re-victimization. Promoting the student body’s mental health is not enough — we must acknowledge the unique needs of survivors of sexual assault as well.

The College fails to advertise its mental health services and commitment to the issue in a systematic and welcoming way. Jordan Kunzika ’16, creator of Helping Hand, a stress management resource app, said that he believes students “never hear about the issues of mental health during orientation.” And awareness doesn’t get better after freshman year — Active Minds chair Jake Donehey ’17 noted, “the average Dartmouth student doesn’t even know the resources that exist for them.” While the Counseling and Human Development department offers support groups for those with depression and for those of various minority groups, the lack of strategic outreach prevents most groups from meeting their minimum enrollment of four members. Student Assembly vice president Julia Dressel ’17 said, “the silence around the resources increases the stigma of seeking services.”

While it is laudable that the College hosts screening fairs and has taken the initiative to hire a confidential sexual assault counselor, students are still limited to one hour of counseling per week and only 10 to 12 sessions per academic year. Additionally, only students enrolled full-time who are taking classes can access these resources, meaning students off-campus or on leave-terms in residence cannot seek out the College’s care. The College’s counselor-on-call service responds in emergency situations, but students should not have to be in crisis to finally access the help they need. The College’s insufficient infrastructure to treat the mental health needs of students is irresponsible. To foster a safe and healthy environment and reach our true intellectual and academic potential, we cannot allow untreated mental disorders impede our ability to thrive.

Frank Cunningham ’16 is Student Assembly president, and Tori Nevel ’16 is the chair of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault.