Undergraduate JED committee finalizes mental health assessment, Student Assembly hosts panel

The mental health forum was preceded by a small student demonstration pushing for more tangible change in the College’s mental health policies.

by Andrew Sasser and Farah Lindsey-Almadani | 11/12/21 5:05am

by Beam Lertbunnaphongs / The Dartmouth

As the fall term comes to a close, Student Assembly and the undergraduate JED committee — one of five committees formed as part of Dartmouth’s recent partnership with the JED Foundation, a non-profit promoting the emotional health of young people — have been working to gather student feedback on current mental health policies. Through the “JED baseline survey,” the undergraduate JED committee is currently conducting an assessment of the College’s mental health policies, while also surveying student opinions about these policies through a “Healthy Minds Survey.” Additionally, Student Assembly hosted a roundtable on Thursday to discuss areas of improvement in mental health policies with students. 

JED Mental Health Assessment 

As part of the College’s recently announced partnership with JED, members of the interdisciplinary committee for the undergraduate College have begun surveying campus resources and policies for mental health. According to College Health Service director Mark Reed, who co-chairs the undergraduate committee alongside Spanish professor and former dean of the College Rebecca Biron, the committee is in the “final stages” of gathering information on the College’s mental health services — through a 50-page questionnaire provided by JED that delves into mental health policies and procedures. 

According to a copy of the questionnaire obtained by The Dartmouth, an estimated 23% to 28% of the student body received treatment for mental health issues through counseling services at Dick’s House over the last academic year, including a total of 320 mental health crisis appointments during the 2020-21 academic year. Students waited, on average, between one and five days for a counseling appointment, with 15% of clients referred to off-campus counseling services, the report said. Additionally, the report noted that there were 24 psychiatric hospitalizations among students last year. 

With regard to the College’s controversial medical leave policy — with which an investigation by The Dartmouth this summer found numerous issues — the “Healthy Minds Survey” reported that an estimated 45 students took medical leaves of absence for mental health reasons in the last academic year, with 30 students returning from mental health leave of absences in the last year. 

Additionally, as part of the questionnaire, the undergraduate committee wrote that Dartmouth faces “specific challenges and limitations” in supporting student emotional health and substance abuse problems. The committee added that these challenges include a lack of long-term counseling options and the “difficulties of the D-Plan” in establishing a community for those recovering from substance abuse. 

According to Reed, the questionnaire is mostly composed of yes or no questions about the various policies and procedures for mental health on campus. He added that in combination with the “Healthy Minds Survey” of undergraduate students and a site visit from JED staff in Feb. 2022, JED will help the College identify areas for improvement and set goals over the next four years. 

“The two policies that students [on the committee] have had the most interest in are the Good [Samaritan] and medical leave policies,” Reed said. “Having students on the committee creates accountability for us, which is important as we work with JED on identifying policies we can improve.” 

Biron said that the undergraduate committee has also begun discussing areas of improvement in mental health policies based on the results of the baseline survey — before the results of which will be sent to JED. For example, she noted that she felt that policies could be “more centralized” for students to access.

“We have had some problems communicating the policies to students previously,” Biron said. “In my view, we need to work on how the policies are explained to individuals and make them more user-friendly to access.”

Biron added that the committee plans to have a “concrete set of recommendations” to provide to the College by the end of spring term. She also said that the recommendations will be built from a combination of JED’s feedback and the committee’s own “observations and critiques.”

Jessica Chiriboga ’24, a student member of the undergraduate committee, said that the completion of the baseline survey was informed by student feedback — noting that members of the Class of 2024 had been “speaking a lot” about the medical leave policy in particular. She added that the roundtable on Thursday was another avenue for students to “voice their concerns” about mental health policies to members of the committee. 

“It’s been a long time coming and we’re hoping to get students from around campus to express their very real concerns,” Chiriboga said. 

Chiriboga recommended that students continue to organize and express their thoughts on mental health policies to create an “ideal Dartmouth.” 

“We don’t have to wait four years to make changes — we can start making changes happen now,” she said. 

Student Assembly Mental Health Forum

Student Assembly hosted a mental health roundtable for students at One Wheelock on Thursday night. The forum, announced in an email to campus, was facilitated by Student Assembly representatives Chiriboga and David Millman ’23. Students were invited to share questions, concerns and recommendations regarding mental health on campus.

Twenty minutes before the event took place, a small group of students gathered in front of One Wheelock to “demonstrate for real solutions to the campus mental health crisis,” according to a flyer distributed ahead of the event. The flyer asked students to bring signs indicating their “mental health demands” and listed four examples: changes to medical leave, more counselors, accessible scheduling and to “make it clear to admin that they can’t just brush off [students’] well-being.” 

Student protestors Kari Bhavsar ’24 and Sebastian Muñoz-McDonald ’23 cited the lack of transparency between the College, Student Assembly and the student body as motivations for the demonstration — specifically related to the College’s medical leave policy. 

“I’m demonstrating to just bring more light around mental health policies at Dartmouth right now, and how [the College] has not significantly changed in the past year given a lot of hardships that, especially [the Class of 2024] has faced,” Bhavsar said. 

Muñoz-McDonald, who previously ran for Student Assembly, said that increased mental health support for students was a key part of his campaign platform. 

“In the past year, Student Assembly has made some progress in terms of working with administration towards mental health solutions,” Muñoz-McDonald said. “However, I feel like [Student Assembly] could demand more out of the administration when it comes to changes — and not cede to small adjustments [or] surface-level changes.” 

Muñoz-McDonald said that these “surface-level changes” include the partnership that Student Assembly launched with the mental health app Calm earlier this term. 

During the forum, which saw around 20 attendees, Biron and Reed stressed JED’s role within the College and the importance of mental health, respectively. Biron discussed how JED’s “comprehensive approach” includes both reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and fostering community. 

When the forum opened to questions, students asked about the role of JED, academic policies surrounding extensions for mental health and how much of the Call to Lead campaign funds would be directed to improving College mental health services. 

When questioned about JED’s role within mental health services, Reed said that mistrust between students and administration is present.

“There is a trust problem, and that’s real,” Reed said. “My goal would be to increase trust, and increase transparency as much as possible,” noting that the forum was part of working towards this goal. 

Involuntary medical leaves — another topic asked about at the forum — are an uncommon occurrence, according to Reed. Between 50 and 60 students take medical leaves each year on average, and 90% of leaves are “initiated by students.”

“There are probably three to five students a year out of the 1,800 students that we see, who —  even after the support and the hospital — are in a state where they continue to not be safe, where they need a level of care that is not available on campus and are felt to need a medical leave,” Reed added. 

He acknowledged student frustration on the issue of mental health.

“There is this feeling [that] not enough is being done,” Reed said, “and I think that forums like this, where we talk [to] student groups — like Mental Health Union and Student Assembly — are important.”

Chiriboga is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.

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