Moore: Prioritize Student Well-being

As we transition back to in-person learning, it is critical that colleges prioritize student mental health above all else.

by Chelsea Moore | 4/26/21 2:07am

Last fall, my jog around the Parcel 5 trail in Norwich was interrupted by a Listserv email about the death of a member of the Class of 2023. In the winter, I was falling asleep to my Zoom screen when my phone dinged, notifying me about the death of a member of the Class of 2024. Two weeks ago, I was biking around Occom pond when I got a call about the death of my good friend. 

Alongside the direct health impacts of COVID-19 itself, there has been increased recognition of the impacts that the pandemic and this string of recent tragedies have had on student mental health. For students especially, the advent of the pandemic has led to disruption in college plans, family life and employment. It has exacerbated many long-standing mental health struggles, exposing students to the trauma of personal and familial illness, financial hardship, displacement and psychological harm. Institutions must now work more than ever to fully address long-standing gaps in the student support system, something that Dartmouth does not seem to prioritize. Moreover, the College needs to emphasize well-being campuswide, and the counseling center cannot — and should not — be the only place on a campus responsible for students’ emotional health. While therapists provide treatment, colleges as a whole should focus on prevention.

Yes, it is true, colleges are facing a host of financial and programmatic unknowns — existing challenges that are only being magnified by the ongoing crisis. But as our school administration agonizes about budget cuts and mask mandates, many students are struggling to wake up every morning. Clearly, the pandemic has upended the college experience for a generation of students and professors. Some of us, members of the Class of 2024 especially, have only met our classmates and professors over Zoom, and our new classroom is our bedroom; our campus is our house. Now, more than ever, the needs and aspirations of students are shifting. 

Librex is an anonymous discussion app that’s heavily used by Dartmouth students. On April 18, a student posted a story exemplifying the counseling service letting us down:

“11:45 pm: *calls dick’s house counselor on call; answering machine says they will call back asap* 7:00 am: *receives call* … here for us 24/7?” A clarifying comment from the original poster was made below, adding “they said they were occupied and could not get back to me until they did. Maybe have more than one [f—] counselor on call then. With thousands of students here, it’s possible for more than one person to be suffering a mental health crisis at the same time. Every day grows my ire at Dartmouth’s mental health support infrastructure." Another comment said  “this literally happened to me.”

These comments line up with more general statistics about an increased need for support services due to higher rates of depression. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Healthy Minds Network, “half of students in fall 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety.” The study also revealed that 83 percent of students said that their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance. Two thirds of college students reported feeling lonely and isolated. Moreover, “60% of college students nationwide said that the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care,” which does not bode well for these statistics. 

This is not to say that Dartmouth is completely failing its students in terms of mental health resources. Students have the ability to schedule virtual counseling appointments, attend various recovery group meetings for those who face eating disorders and addiction problems, and take advantage of Student Wellness Center programming. However, knowing how poor mental health can spiral rapidly and dangerously, it is unacceptable for the 24-hour crisis service hotline to be busy. 

Moreover, to access these resources at all, the student must take the initiative. For some, it is scary to reach out about mental health concerns, and Dartmouth’s virtual wellness system is not accessible for everyone. The counseling services must be more proactive about reaching out and their strategies to make them more reliable. Last March, for example, the University of Kentucky addressed the emerging pandemic by having counselors and administrators personally call every single one of the 30,000 students to check in on their mental health and wellness and share information about mental health resources. Notre Dame administrators regularly surveyed students at Notre Dame regarding how they were doing. 

Dartmouth should follow suit, empowering advisors, faculty and staff by making a significant investment in the development of preventative measures. In doing so, the College can leverage digital platforms to create safe and reliable online networks for conversations around mental health. Rather than viewing the pandemic as a set of unique challenges, the Dartmouth administration ought to view the past year as a wake-up call, an indication that many of their students — not just those who are isolated interpersonally — need help, which cannot come in the form of bland emails from administrators or promises to cure society's ills. Dartmouth must invest resources in an infrastructure to more personally care for each of its students, something that will be especially important as we emerge from the pandemic and transition into a drastically different environment than what we’ve gotten comfortable with this past year.