Dartmouth College’s history with mental health is complicated. It’s undeniable that the administration has tried to create spaces for struggling students, but the availability, accessibility and quality of these resources are still insufficient. In a high-pressure environment where depression and anxiety risk factors are exacerbated, heavy workloads and constant conversation surrounding future plans and transitions, it’s vital that students are given the resources they need to stay healthy. It’s equally as important to provide these resources with as few barriers to access as possible to prevent students from becoming discouraged by too many referrals or excessive waiting times.
In 2020, 67% of Dartmouth students reported feeling overwhelmed because of their academic responsibilities, meanwhile, a quarter of students felt so depressed that it was difficult for them to function. It’s no surprise that an academically rigorous college would impose some level of stress upon its students; however, causing long-term emotional distress isn’t healthy for anyone. For students who are impacted by their academic responsibilities to the point of mental anguish, the College has a deceptively broad mental health support system available: peer support through the Dartmouth Student Mental Health Union, teletherapy through UWill and the Counseling Center at Dick’s House. With this range of resources, it seems as though students should easily be able to get immediate, quality and personalized support. Sadly, this often isn’t the case.
Despite peer supporters’ extensive training, facilitated by the Student Wellness Center and Student Mental Health Union, it can be difficult for students to feel comfortable sharing their struggles with their peers — faces they may recognize in classes or in line at campus cafes. Those who do feel comfortable talking with peer supporters are faced with the fact that peer supporters aren’t able to provide actual therapy or respond to crises and thus are often inadequate sources for students in a mental health crisis or episode. Furthermore, students who have experienced sexual assault may be wary of interacting with peer supporters because they are private resources, meaning they are non-confidential when it comes to acts of sexual violence. It’s clear that peer support isn’t meant to be a substitute for therapy, but rather a source of empathy or simply a listener. And while this could be a beneficial resource for some, it cannot ensure the mental safety and health of Dartmouth students.
Dartmouth College Health Service provides counseling in its counseling center, but it’s inefficient and poorly organized. After reaching out for counseling, students must first have a triage appointment over the phone, where they are assessed to see where they should be directed to. Just this first step alone can take one to three business days to schedule, or more depending on the volume of students calling in. After that, students may be directed to group therapy, short-term therapy, a dietician or an outsourced community provider if they can afford it and can transport themselves there.
Simply put, the choice of whether or not a student gets to meet with a counselor in the counseling center is entirely out of the student’s hands. The College Health Service is in control of the entire process, stripping students of their agency over their health. In this system, the barriers to entry — impersonalized phone therapy, long wait times, restrictive treatment forms, and much more — risk students abandoning their attempts at getting mental health care. Even worse, students who are in counseling aren’t granted more than one session over leave terms, breaking the consistency of care and disrupting the progress that they’ve made. It’s not irrational to ask that the College hire enough counselors so that students aren’t forced into irregular, short-term counseling.
For students who choose not to go through the Counseling Center’s complicated and discouraging hurdles, they can opt for UWill instead. UWill is a free teletherapy service for Dartmouth students. This is arguably the best resource that Dartmouth has to offer for students who want long-term and confidential counseling, which is, quite frankly, sad to think about. UWill therapy sessions are only 30 minutes long, 20 minutes shorter than the average therapy session, and are conducted over a virtual interface. Not only are these sessions too short for many students, but the digital nature of the therapy can be less effective than in-person therapy, according to the New York Times. Without the ability to pick up on all nonverbal cues or the comfort that physically seeing a person provides, patients report feeling less willing to confide in their therapist and that the experience is less intimate as a whole.
There’s something crucial about being in a therapist’s office and seeing them in-person. It makes us feel comforted and vulnerable enough to do what is often the most difficult step in seeking mental health care: ask for help. Dartmouth students deserve access to long-term, in-person and timely therapy without having to decipher the incredibly disjointed and inaccessible mental health support system that the College currently provides. Most students spend four years of their lives on this campus, facing the regular highs and lows of transitioning into adulthood. To expect them to handle it all alone without sufficient help is inhumane. It’s the College’s responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their students, which includes quality mental health care.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.