One year ago, student report anticipated problems with College’s COVID-19 policies

A report conducted last summer about students’ concerns with the College’s pandemic response predicted mental health issues, including freshman suicides.

by Arielle Feuerstein | 8/13/21 5:15am

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by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Last July, five Dartmouth students conducted a study on student perspectives regarding the College’s planned COVID-19 policies. The Aug. 3, 2020 report, titled “Achieving Public Health Success at Dartmouth: The Student Perspective,” outlined concerns from the student body about student mental health, many of which materialized later in the year as student mental health declined and the College saw three deaths by suicide among members of the Class of 2024: Beau DuBray, Connor Tiffany and Elizabeth Reimer

Among other concerns, the report, which surveyed 58 Dartmouth students in 11 focus groups, highlighted student fears about “the psychological impacts of the 14-day quarantine and physical distancing policies,” as well as concerns about the “mental well-being of first-year students” in particular, “who will lack social networks when arriving on campus.” The report also stated that students feared the possibility of suicide on campus after two suicides occurred during the first week of quarantine at the Air Force Academy in April 2020. Students expressed that they “did not believe that existing mental health resources at Dartmouth would be adequate.”

The report suggested strategies for addressing student concerns with the College’s pandemic response. To mitigate the negative effects of social isolation and deteriorating mental health, the report suggested the College “provide safe and structured opportunities for socialization … consider adopting a ‘pod’ system in which students can socialize within small designated groups … [and] ensure existing campus mental health services are adequate to fulfill student needs during quarantine/isolation.” 

An investigation by The Dartmouth, released earlier this summer, found that campus mental health resources were consistently lacking throughout the pandemic. The College made some adjustments in response to student concerns, but at other times resisted change even when students publicized demands.   

The authors of the report sent copies to then-COVID-19 Task Force co-chair Lisa Adams and clinical medical services director Ann Bracken, both of whom declined to comment for this story. 

Hannah Lang ’21, one of the paper’s authors, said Bracken sent the report to other Dick’s House employees, and it seemed that both Bracken and Adams were receptive to the report. 

Bracken and Adams paid less attention to “comments about it possibly being like solitary confinement … and more attention to what kinds of incentives can [they] offer students” to comply, according to Lang. 

Brandon Hill ’23, another one of the report’s authors, said that, to his knowledge, the College did not take any tangible steps to improve its mental health infrastructure prior to students’ return to campus, despite concerns.

“Rereading the report, seeing how clearly some of these student concerns were outlined and then the fact that no precautions got put in place in anticipation of the returning students in the fall — it's a crime,” Hill said.  

Lang also feels that the College missed opportunities to improve mental health infrastructure proactively, rather than retroactively

“Even if [Dartmouth] had hired their two or three new counselors this time last year instead of two months ago, I think that could have possibly made a difference,” Lang said. 

Dick’s House director Heather Earle wrote in an email that in response to declining mental health due to the pandemic, Dick’s House staff “have worked to think ‘outside the box’ in delivering services during COVID.” She also emphasized that Dick’s House has added five new counselors this past year, and one more will arrive in September. Earle wrote that Dick’s House is also searching for two more clinicians to focus specifically on suicide prevention and outreach programs, in addition to counseling.

Lang highlighted the “extreme number of logistics” that Dartmouth officials had to juggle when planning students’ return to campus, including pressure from local residents, but noted that the College’s response was still lacking from a mental health standpoint compared to peer institutions.

“I think that there’s more that could have been done in looking at other schools where they didn’t have three people commit suicide in one year with comparable demographics and similar, very careful public health plans,” Lang said. “I think there was an opportunity for them to listen more, change course a little bit once they knew that the situation was pretty under control.”

The report also raised student concerns about a “lack of clarity regarding punitive measures for infractions [and] the severity of punishments for minor mistakes.” As students were sent home from campus last fall, some felt that the lack of transparency fostered a culture of fear among students living on campus, including first-year students. Then-Student Assembly president Cait McGovern ’21 told The Dartmouth at the time that the College’s unclear rules “fueled speculation, rumors and panic among students.”

“I think that maybe more could have been done especially to help get the ’24s really integrated in the community and feel comfortable with each other and feel like [they] could socialize without breaking the rules, or without getting kicked off of campus,” Lang said. “I think that fear of retribution definitely doesn't help any of the mental health things.”

Hill felt that the College’s punishments contributed to a divide between the student body and the administration.

“It did not feel like the College was on our side, and I don't know if you’ll call that blame, but it certainly didn't feel like we were in this together,” Hill said. 

Hill said he feels that the College should have been more receptive to student feedback. He expressed that the research team’s goal in writing the report was to advocate for the student viewpoint, and he was “continually frustrated” with the lack of avenues for students to promote change. 

“If you’re going to try to affect policies that are centered around a specific group of people, you need input from that group of people in order to make sure that your solutions are actually going to work,” Hill said. “If you sort of make policy decisions in a vacuum, then you don't know how they’re actually going to translate to your target population.”

In addition to Bracken and Adams, Health service director Mark Reed and former COVID-19 Task Force co-chair Josh Keniston did not reply to requests for comment. Additionally, report authors Alex Eyvazzadeh ’21, Nina Kowsosky ’21 and Prathna Kumar ’21 did not respond to requests for comment.

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