Fausey: Dartmouth’s Mental Health Policies Don’t Need Tweaks, They Need an Overhaul
The Provost’s June 2 update on the College’s mental health review reflects a superficial, neglectful and out-of-touch approach to the issue, which does not bode well for the initiative’s future.
As a senior-plus-one, I’ve become accustomed to the way in which the Dartmouth administration communicates with the student body: principally, emails with neutral subject lines — addressed “to the Dartmouth community” — and a body crafted to maximize word count and minimize information conveyed. These statements range from monotonous at best to insulting at worst; more often than not, they toe the line between the two. College Provost David Kotz was able to execute such a balancing act with his June 2 update on the College’s ongoing review of Dartmouth’s mental health policies. The statement outlines an extensive list of actions taken and initiatives underway, touting the successes of both. Although a more comprehensive plan will be made public in the fall, this email worries me. If the content of the update is anything to go off of, the administration’s plan will not sufficiently address students’ concerns over the College’s ailing mental health infrastructure.
The most visible initiatives undertaken in response to the JED Foundation’s ongoing mental health review, which began in the Summer of 2021, have been the College’s partnerships with the teletherapy platform Uwill and the mindfulness app Headspace. Uwill — which provides free teletherapy for students — in particular has had a positive effect, alleviating some of the stress placed on the strained resources of Dick’s House’s 14 counselors. However, whether a service like Uwill will be effective in the long run remains unclear. Many publications laud teletherapy’s accessibility and effectiveness, and rightfully so. However, when it comes to mass-market digital health services like Uwill, there are reasons to be skeptical. Teletherapy’s efficacy has only been proven in the context of private practice — whether a company like Uwill, which is not private practice, could provide the same degree of care as a regular clinician has yet to be shown.
These concerns are minor — by and large, Uwill is a useful resource. The same cannot be said for Headspace. The app offers mindfulness coaching and meditation guidance, practices that can range from helpful, to harmless, to actively detrimental. Those with predispositions toward chronic mental illnesses often report that meditation and mindfulness activities only amplify their stress and anxiety — the exact opposite of the intended effect. That Provost Kotz refers in his email to Headspace as an app that “helps students when they need support the most” points to a deeper issue — an over-emphasis on mindfulness’ importance in maintaining mental health, in lieu of substantive medical intervention clinical care.
In Spring 2022, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to transition the physical education credit to the “wellness education” credit. The Provost also plans to rename the “medical leave” policy to “Time Away for Medical Reasons,” according to his email. These rewordings are supposedly meant to create positive change in the culture surrounding mental health, but instead, come across as patronizing and belittling. Nowhere is this infantilization clearer than in how the Provost portrays the effort to improve “safety and wellbeing in the physical environment.” When describing the addition of the new “tranquility” room in the Student Wellness Center, the Provost makes sure to specifically mention the College’s boldest and most groundbreaking initiative to date: the acquisition of two luxury massage chairs for the new space.
Now, I can rest assured that my physical environment is safe and my being is well. Thank you Dartmouth, thank you Student Wellness Center and a special thanks to the TITAN Pro 8500 Series Tan Faux Leather Reclining 2D Massage Chair (with Zero Gravity, Foot and Calf Massage and Heated Seat).
The hollow content of the Provost’s update is nothing new. As I said before, Dartmouth’s administration speaks in a language of coherent gibberish, words that sound as though they’re directly tackling a subject when in reality they’re barely at its periphery. It’s what we’ve come to expect, an integral part of the Dartmouth experience. What sets this message apart, what makes its superficial language so insulting, is the intention behind it. It isn’t that the administration has little to say. Rather, the administration has a lot it wants to avoid saying.
Predictably, the structural factors which contribute to poor mental health in students are not addressed. The update makes no mention of the negative effects of academic stress on mental health — instead, it prefers to peddle time-intensive programs, seminars and workshops centered around meditation and mental health awareness. This is all well and good, but who has the time to attend four Koru Mindfulness sessions a term when there’s a midterm this Friday, next Friday and the Monday after that? The email also says nothing about the role housing instability plays in negatively impacting students’ mental states, a point made over a year ago in a Verbum Ultimum piece.
The Provost even ignored some of the recommendations the JED Foundation gave after their preliminary investigation. The update made no mention of a scan for environmental means restriction, which would require surveying campus for locations, objects and practices that might facilitate or exacerbate a student’s mental health crisis. According to the JED Foundation, this scan is a critical part of building an effective mental health infrastructure. I assume this is what the working group for “safety and well-being in the physical environment” was working on before they found out about the massage chairs and called it a day.
Other than offering trivial mindfulness programs, the administration embraces passivity as policy, placing the burden of mental health care onto students. Real change would require active initiatives that incorporate other options for care into Dartmouth’s mental health support system. The school could offer more robust group counseling, which is currently woefully underutilized, or increase access to off-campus providers, through transportation vouchers or financial aid for long-term medical expenses. Dartmouth could also follow in the footsteps of peer institutions and implement wellness days: no questions-asked opportunities for students to recover from burnout without fear of hurting their participation grade. If nothing else, the administration should listen to industry recommendations and make training programs like Adult Mental Health First Aid mandatory for all faculty and staff.
These are things that should happen, but unfortunately, most of them won’t. When I stumbled upon that Verbum Ultimum piece, I thought I had entered a time loop. The column was written in April 2022, yet it lists these same grievances. These complaints were brought up once again in another Verbum Ultimum column from last May. Instead of taking student voices seriously, the administration set its own goalposts for success. Now, they expect a pat on the back for ignoring student concerns and addressing only the issues they deem worthy of attention. If Dartmouth wants to take mental health seriously, it needs to acknowledge it as a long-term issue, not something that can be solved with stop-gap measures and one-time expenditures. However, if the Provost’s message is any indication, the administration is only concerned with the near future — it is more focused on avoiding backlash than providing adequate care.