Mental health at Vassar College is a frequent point of discussion on campus, from stress reduction strategies on the boards in the College Center to students organizing to fight for better campus mental health services. The pressures of college life can cause stress at any time, but in the wake of the 2016 election it is especially crucial for Vassar to do all it can to take care of the mental health of its students. The College should provide students with safe spaces to discuss their fears and concerns about the campus and larger political climate. American health care is under attack from the Trump administration, and now more than ever Vassar must ensure that all students have access to health care, including comprehensive mental health care. Vassar administrators have demonstrated their commitment to mental health care in the past few years by adding several new counselors to the counseling service, but they have also shown disregard for student-run support services and the important work that they do.
Last spring, during study week, administrators met with the leadership of The Listening Center (TLC) and CARES as well as their staff supervisors to inform them that both of the peer listening organizations would be taken off call indefinitely. According to the articles that each group published in Boilerplate Magazine, the administration came to this decision because of the potential for liability for the College as well as the licensure of staff supervisors. The peer listeners on both hotlines are students who have completed comprehensive trainings with members of the Vassar staff, but because they are not licensed professionals, the College runs a legal risk should any harm come to a caller. However, the administrators that met with students offered little help to come up with ideas for alternate programming or ways that the organizations could fulfill their roles as peer listeners without a phone.
Rather, student leaders were encouraged to transition their organizations into peer education groups that provided students with ways to take care of their mental health on their own or with professional resources (Boilerplate Magazine, “CARES Off Call,” 06.01.2016). While peer education is a valuable and necessary service, this role is already filled by House Team members and the peer educators trained by the Office of Health Education. In addition, both organizations’ mission statements were centered around providing private peer listening services, which goes beyond education. Instead of working with students and staff to make these hotlines safer and more effective, Vassar chose to cut them altogether.
We at The Miscellany News believe that student-run support services have been mishandled and mistreated by the Vassar administration. By prohibiting CARES and TLC from being on call, Vassar has taken away what has proven to be a valued resource for students. In the past year, TLC received 125 calls in total, eight of which were considered high-risk calls relating to suicide or selfharm (Boilerplate Magazine, “TLC Off Call,” 06.01.2016). This data is consistent with the amount of calls that they have received in years past, demonstrating that students use TLC frequently and rely on the resource. Although many calls involve referring students to resources that could be helpful in the long term, student hotlines provide a needed service on campus: peer support for immediate, pressing issues. Whether a caller simply needs to talk through a stressful day or is using a peer hotline as a stepping stone to professional help, TLC and CARES listeners provided a safe, private resources that students could turn to if they needed help.
Without TLC and CARES, students are left with Protocall, a counselor-on-call system that theoretically serves as a similar resource. The Vassar Counseling Service website describes Protocall as “a 24/7 mental health hotline available to Vassar students during the academic year. This service is staffed by mental health professionals who have been trained to work with Vassar students.” Although this sounds good in theory, this service cannot replace the value of a peer listener who is intimately familiar with Vassar life and culture. We at The Miscellany News feel that mental health care is not something the College should be outsourcing
Now that they have been taken off call, TLC and CARES are trying to establish their new roles on campus and have received little administrative support in their efforts. CARES has provided educational programming, self-care events and survivor affinity spaces since going off call. TLC now holds open hours twice a week for students to come and speak with a listener. TLC in particular received pushback from administrators about offering any sort of in-person listening services. They tried to establish open hours last semester as well but did not get approval until late last month. Although students in TLC and CARES are hard at work trying to create programming related to mental health and self-care, they unfortunately cannot provide the services that they were created for.
While we understand the need for Vassar to protect its employees and do not expect TLC and CARES supervisors to risk losing their license for these organizations, peer listening services are available at other schools and Vassar has no shortage of examples to follow when it comes to effective peer counseling organizations. In the article published by CARES in Boilerplate, they write that schools such as Williams College, Northwestern University and Columbia University provide peer listeners with 40-50 hours of training before going on call, as well as ongoing trainings during their time as a listener.
This is similar to the training that members of Vassar EMS complete, which is why they were exempt from the cut to student-run support organizations (Boilerplate Magazine, “CARES Off Call,” 06.01.2016). It is certainly feasible for the administration to work with SAVP, the Counseling Service, TLC and CARES to develop training protocols. However, administrators decided that they would rather cut these services than improve them. We at The Miscellany News urge the administration to reconsider this decision and work more closely with TLC and CARES to find a compromise that allows the College to address liability concerns but maintains the important peer-to-peer resources that Vassar students depend on.
On a broader level, TLC and CARES also played an important role in educating students about campus resources that might be relevant to their calls. Many of these resources can be extremely helpful, but students don’t have many other ways to find out which campus offices and staff members would best serve their needs. We suggest that administrators and house team members make more of a concerted effort to inform students of all of the resources that Vassar provides and how to use them effectively, especially now that there are fewer organizations that do this work.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.