Verbum Ultimum: A Cry for Help

When it comes to supporting mental health on campus, Dartmouth has deserted its students. It’s time the College made the changes students have been demanding for years.

by Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/28/21 2:15am

Last Thursday, the Dartmouth community received word of the death of Elizabeth Reimer ’24. Her death — the fourth of an undergraduate student this academic year, and the third of a first-year student — has only deepened the grief within a community that had already been mourning the losses of three peers. Though now is the time to grieve, change must soon follow. For far too long, student calls for increased mental health resources and changes in policy have been met by woefully inadequate responses from the College, even as the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis on campus and made these cries for help all the more urgent. Dartmouth must repair its dilapidated mental health infrastructure or risk further tragedies.

In the wake of Elizabeth’s death, College President Phil Hanlon announced that the College would add a second nurse to the on-call staffing at Dartmouth Health Services “to minimize the chance that calls are routed to voicemail when any student contacts for support,” in addition to bringing on two new counselors and a student wellness coordinator. According to a social media post by Student Assembly, the counselors will “extend suicide prevention training and clinical capacity for individual therapy,” while the student wellness coordinator will “promote awareness, culture change and skill building.” The College also announced a partnership with the JED Foundation — a non-profit that works to promote suicide prevention and protect emotional health among youth — relaxed some COVID-19 restrictions and extended the deadline for the use of the non-recording option.

These reforms are a step in the right direction. They come on top of the Campus Climate and Culture Initiative, C3I — an effort launched in January 2019 that promised additional resources to hire new counselors — as well as changes made ahead of winter term in response to student criticism of fall policies. But they are not nearly enough. 

Bringing on a nurse and two additional counselors will not solve the persistent problem of vast numbers of Dartmouth students not being able to receive needed counseling. In fact, these additions feel to many — including this Editorial Board — like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, made in an effort to prevent people from accusing the College of inaction rather than out of a genuine desire to improve mental health infrastructure on campus. The College’s deficient response is especially problematic given that the mental health crisis on campus is not a new one — students have been calling for more counselors for years. That it was ever possible for the on-call line to go to voicemail or that students would not be able to book an appointment because the Counseling Center was understaffed only further illustrates the magnitude of changes required. 

Furthermore, even for those students able to overcome the many hurdles to accessing counseling — need we even note that, absurdly, students can only book appointments over the phone? — Dartmouth’s mental health services remain inadequate. As it stands, Dick’s House does not currently offer long-term therapy; if a student’s treatment goals “do not fit within a short-term model,” they must work with a counselor to obtain a community referral in order to continue therapy. Anecdotally, we know these community referrals are often relatively unhelpful, with the next appointments available being months away thanks to Hanover’s rural location. When they are available, they are expensive, deterring low-income students from even pursuing the option in the first place. 

In addition to bringing on more counselors and providing long-term care options, the College must immediately amend its disastrous medical leave policies. Currently, students who go on medical leave cannot get counseling or other services through Dick’s House and must remain off campus through the following term, at which point Dartmouth counselors and the student’s dean decide whether or not to let the student return. There is no formal appeals process for students who are denied. While off campus, students are barred from returning even for a visit — isolating them from their communities, friends and support networks during what is likely one of the loneliest times in their lives. As a result of these harsh policies, students who experience suicidal ideation abstain from using College counseling services out of fear of being placed on involuntary medical leave. One student who went on medical leave described an “illusion of choice”: being offered voluntary medical leave or going involuntarily were their only two options. This is wrong, plain and simple. No student should ever be forcibly removed from campus for seeking mental health support. 

It’s high time Dartmouth finally listened to its students, who have been crying out for help for years now. To finally address the student mental health crisis, Dick’s House must hire enough counselors to guarantee long-term counseling for those who seek it, and the College must correct its inhumane medical leave policies. Additionally, given that more than 50% of students, faculty and staff accessing campus resources and buildings have been fully vaccinated, there is no reason that students shouldn’t have access to in-person, fully vaccinated counselors. Remote-only appointments are a barrier to care for students who may live with roommates, who have digital privacy concerns or who believe that, for them, counseling simply doesn’t translate over Zoom. Dartmouth has offered in-person primary care appointments for some time now throughout the pandemic; that mental health care is treated differently than physical health care speaks volumes about the College’s priorities. Come summer, the Counseling Center should be open and in person again. 

Dartmouth should also be more open to allowing students mental health days following tragedies such as this year’s deaths or in times of general stress. The “business as usual” attitude that the College has adopted following these incidents — perhaps best exemplified by a remarkably tone-deaf email after the January 6 insurrection from Dean of the College Kathryn Lively declaring that “no matter what tragedies or disappointments you may have faced, the academic term starts now” — cannot continue. Requiring students to beg professors and deans, who are often stressed and overworked themselves, for extensions and accommodations in the wake of campus-wide traumas is cruel and compassionless. 

In addition to these changes, the general increase in academic leniency that has accompanied the pandemic should continue when we return to normalcy, not only because of the lasting impacts of the pandemic but because it gives students more agency over their academics. NRO policies should remain flexible going forward — students should be able to set or change a limit up until the end of the term and should be able to apply it to some of their major classes and distributional requirements. Professors should continue to be more understanding of the circumstances that students face and adjust their curricula and class policies accordingly. 

In case the student-organized vigil, frustrated op-eds and enraged social media posts weren’t signal enough, graffiti and banners springing up across campus should have made things crystal clear. The College’s response — calling the police — seems to suggest that the message has yet to sink in, so once more: Students feel angered and betrayed by the inadequate mental health response over the past year. Now is the time for the College to acknowledge the responsibility it bears for its students’ mental health — and implement comprehensive change before even more harm is done. 

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.