Dartmouth is experiencing a mental health crisis, but it’s not just us: college students nationwide experienced higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation in 2020 than in 2019. The pandemic has only exacerbated existing strain on college counseling centers. Something has to change.
This past May, The Dartmouth editorial board wrote that “students feel angered and betrayed by [Dartmouth’s] inadequate mental health response over the past year”. Personally, I feel betrayed by the fact that it took four student deaths for the administration to hire a second counselor on call. I feel angry because students were previously sent to voicemail or forced to wait in crisis before receiving care. The crisis is all around us: in recent weeks, more than 80 mental health patients have been waiting for emergency inpatient beds across New Hampshire. But that makes me feel betrayed by the admissions materials I received in the spring of 2017 telling me that Dartmouth is exceptional. I feel angry at our administration for refusing to acknowledge the ubiquity of this crisis, forcing students to risk falling behind in their classes if they need a day off to grieve. I am frustrated with the opacity of our administration, and with my subsequent cluelessness regarding where or to whom I should be airing these grievances. I ultimately turn to an obvious figurehead: College President Phil Hanlon.
Before I make suggestions, let me outline some facts: Dartmouth employs twelve counselors and has pledged to hire two more counselors “as soon as possible”; The Counseling Center utilizes a short-term therapy model “in order to meet significant student demand,” but if a student needs long-term help, they may be referred to a therapist in the community; a one-hour psychotherapy appointment in New Hampshire costs anywhere from $98 to $231; Hanlon earned more than $1.4 million in total compensation in 2017; the average salary for a psychologist in New Hampshire was $80,220 in 2017.
In sum, the mental health infrastructure at Dartmouth is inadequate. Although hiring two additional counselors is necessary and will surely lessen existing strain on Counseling Center staff, it will not be enough to allow for longer-term therapy or meaningful engagement with more of the student body. One solution: hire significantly more counselors. However, where will the money for counselors’ salaries come from? How will we recruit good providers amidst the projected shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S.? What about the fact that Dartmouth is an academic institution, not a social or medical one? All of these are valid concerns, and I propose a simple solution: Hanlon should voluntarily relinquish his salary for one year and use that $1 million to pay counselors’ salaries.
His $1.4 million-dollar salary was made up of a $1,005,436 base pay in 2017, along with over $400,000 in benefits and deferred compensation. That amount could easily cover nine or ten counselors’ salaries at $80-$100,000 each. Asking Hanlon to give up his salary would not be without precedent: the Valley News reported that he took a temporary pay cut in April 2020, giving “20% of his salary for the subsequent 12 months to the Dartmouth College Fund … for financial aid.” Even with a decreased salary of $800,000, rather than the usual $1 million, Hanlon still earned roughly $300,000 over the income threshold for New Hampshire’s top 1% of earners. Assuming that he returned to his full pay in April 2021, using his salary as a funding source for new counselors could alleviate some concerns about the College’s projected fiscal losses. It would also be a powerful symbol: amid significant criticism of Hanlon’s leadership and the College’s policies, Hanlon can emerge as an altruistic and determined leader, helping his students navigate these terrible times.
I have no delusions about the administration’s (un)responsiveness to undergraduate students like myself; I know it takes donors’ money or public-facing scandals to enact meaningful change. For example, the Dartmouth Student Union’s petition for an expanded NRO in late March — signed by 683 students and 91 professors — went unheeded. Dean Kathryn Lively emailed the student body on March 5, writing that “the policies cannot be changed this late in the term” with seven days of classes left. However, on May 21, with eleven days of classes left in spring term, Hanlon emailed the student body that “the deadline to elect the non-recording option (NRO)” had been extended for that term. Months after the DSU’s petition, Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson told the Valley News that “[Dean Lively] heard from student leaders that extending the deadline for NROs and incompletes would go a long way to relieve stress.”
Is it possible that the NRO was extended in May, but not in March, due to increased visibility of our poor mental health infrastructure? The decision certainly felt reactionary; in March, it would have been preventative. Rather than waiting for another moment of crisis — rather than letting any more students suffer or die — the College must act. Hanlon’s salary should be used to fund the salaries of nine or ten new mental health professionals for at least one year. That commitment to mental health on campus might begin to heal the anger and betrayal so many of us feel.
Rachel Florman is a member of the class of ’21.
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