Verbum: Selective Paternalism

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/28/16 5:30pm

Mental health is complex and nuanced, and therefore many aspects of mental health are widely misunderstood, then neglected due to a combination of outdated stigmas and a lack of comprehensive scientific understanding. People often assume that mental health means only the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, ignoring the fact that everyone requires some mental upkeep, regardless of whether or not their specific experience fits the textbook definition of a mental disorder. There are few times in someone’s life when they are at greater risk of mental health challenges than when they are in college. Students face everything from experiencing loneliness, to dealing with, separation from one’s family to determining career paths. All of this exacerbates issues that many are already struggling with, and the data reflects this. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in three students reports having experience prolonged periods of depression, one in four students reports having suicidal thoughts or feelings, and one in seven students reports having difficulty functioning at school due to mental illness. The director of NAMI, Ken Duckworth of Harvard Medical School, highlights the importance of this issue, saying, “Undiagnosed mental illness can cause people to withdraw socially, drop out of school, engage in substance abuse, or exhibit other unsettling behaviors.” With the importance of mental health to our well being, as well as the risk that college students face regarding mental illness, one would think that this would be a top priority for schools all around the country, especially Dartmouth. However, the reality is that the College is not doing nearly enough to take care of us mentally, especially considering its stated goals in the past.

Of course, like on any major college campus, there are resources for Dartmouth students to turn to if they are concerned about their mental well-being. Students can take advantage of the Office of Counseling and Human Development’s resources, which include access to on call counselors in case of a crisis situation as well as access to counseling sessions for more complex, perhaps less urgent issues. However, these resources are simply not adequate. For example, a student seeking help who doesn’t have an immediate crisis (which CHD’s website defines as “thoughts and/or plans to hurt yourself or someone else, engaging in behavior that is life threatening or if you have been assaulted, physically or sexually”) has access to 10 to 12 counseling sessions per academic year. If they require continued care, their counselor gives them a referral. However, this referral doesn’t come with any financial assistance for continued help, which easily prevents students who may not be able to afford expensive psychological treatment from getting the help that they need. Even before that point, it is often difficult for students who need help to get an appointment with a counselor. CHD has a total of 10 psychologists and counselors on staff, which can’t be considered nearly enough for upwards of 4,000 undergraduate students. If one in four students report having contemplated suicide, that is roughly 1,000 students at any given time, or 100 students per counselor. That only includes suicidal thoughts or actions, and doesn’t even take into account the myriad of concerns which many students face in college, from eating disorders to gender identity to issues concerning diversity and exclusion to sexual assault.

Dartmouth needs to increase the number of counseling sessions students have access to per year as well as increase the number of full-time CHD staff. These are just two suggestions of many potential ones that the College could make to improve mental health support for students. It could adopt a system like Cornell’s “Let’s Talk” program, in which counselors hold open, anonymous drop in hours that don’t require paperwork. Any care at Dartmouth that doesn’t involve a crisis requires an appointment. A program like this, which would benefit from an increased staff of counselors, would help students who may just need to talk through a particular issue or who may be uncomfortable formally seeking help. The University of Pennsylvania recently created a task force of students, faculty and counselors to address mental health, specifically focused on eliminating “Penn Face,” the culture of appearing effortlessly perfect while struggling in silence. Many point to a similar culture at Dartmouth, often referred to here and elsewhere as “Duck Syndrome.” We should consider the benefits of a task force or concerned effort to tackle culturally specific issues like this one.

Several of the very public changes that Dartmouth has made recently were made under the stated purpose of taking care of Dartmouth students. The College markets policies like the hard alcohol ban, as well as all of the larger “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative, as the school doing what is best for our well-being. If the College is going to claim to take care of us, then it needs to actually start demonstrating this through policies that address mental health. It can’t be selectively paternalistic. If the school is going to claim to know and act in our best interests, it actually needs to take steps to act in our best interests. Because right now, a lot of us aren’t getting the help we need.

The Dartmouth Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, the Executive Editors, the Publisher, and the Editorial Director.