Over 1,000 sign petition to improve mental health services

Although hoping to receive 900 signatures on their online petition to the Administration when first published, Vassar Students for Mental Health saw almost 1,100 signatures in support of substantial changes to the staffing of Metcalf and the awareness of mental health services. Entitled “Hire four mental health counselors, decrease stigma surrounding mental health issues, and increase awareness of on-campus services for mental health,” the petition serves as yet another example of attempt by students to alter the College’s practices on issues of mental health. During recent years, calls to Metcalf have more than tripled in number, and students continue to turn to student-run counseling groups such as The Listening Center (TLC) and CARES rather than those provided by the College itself.

The petition, signed and commented on by hundreds of students, alumnae/i and staff, articulates several demands of the Administration. First, the petition aims to significantly increase the size of the staff at Metcalf—which includes four licensed psychological counselors, one consulting psychiatrist, one post-doctoral fellow, one counseling intern and one social work intern—by requesting that the College hire, as the petition indicated, four additional mental health counselors. The authors explained, “This petition is not discounting the competence of the counselors or the compassion they show to students; it is simply calling attention to the need for more trained mental health professionals on campus [as it] is the responsibility of the College to be a steward of the mental health of its students.”

The petition also seeks to combat the social stigma associated with mental health issues and increase awareness about the services the College currently provides. The document reads, “in addition to an increase in [counseling] staff, we also ask that a workshop addressing mental issues be added to New Student Orientation.”

This petition comes in light of an apparently increasing need for counseling services by Vassar students and the reality that the College’s counseling provisions are challenging to utilize. Following a meeting with Director of Psychological Services, Dr. Wendy Freedman, on issues of staffing at Metcalf, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) released a letter asking for increased staffing to President Hill. The letter said, “Compared to the 2012 fall semester, [January 2013 saw] a 27% increase in crisis calls and a 375% increase in on call/weekend contacts.”

The increasing number of students seeking assistance skill uses the same, varied channels to find suitable mental health care on campus. Dr. Freedman said in an emailed statement, “The majority of students are then scheduled for an initial intake appointment with a counselor. In that intake, the student’s concerns are explored and the student and counselor work together to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for that student.”

She continued, “This could mean short-term, individual or group counseling at the Counseling Service or it can mean a referral to an off-campus therapist if the student is needing more regular or ongoing care and the student has the financial means to go to an off-campus therapist.”

If a student has an emergency, Metcalf has a crisis counselor on call Monday through Friday who is available to meet with students. At these meetings, the student and counselor would work to determine the severity of the situation and what the appropriate next steps would be.

In Sept. and Oct. of this year, the average waiting period for an appointment with Metcalf was 8.39 days, including weekends; after the assistant director left in Oct., the wait has since increased to 13 days. Metcalf is currently working towards filling that position.

According to Freedman, when students begin working with Metcalf, there is no limit to the number of appointments that students can schedule. That being said, with high numbers of students seeking counseling, many students need to go off-campus to receive appropriate care. This can be an issue for students on financial aid. Vassar student health insurance, United Behavioral Healthcare, covers many off-campus therapists with whom Metcalf has established relationships. Students have to pay a co-payment for each of these sessions, which can be a financial burden. Vassar usually refers students within walking distance of campus, or occasionally they take public transportation or a taxi, which is subsidized by Vassar.

Besides Counseling Services, students can get assistance from both TLC and CARES. TLC provides confidential peer-counseling as well as referrals to campus and community services, according to Campus Resources. CARES is a confidential peer-listening service for Vassar students affected by any type of personal violation issue.

The number of students seeking care at Metcalf has remained stable over the past few years; what has increased is the severity of the mental health issues being addressed. From the 2011-2012 academic year to 2013-2014, the calls made to the on-call counselor rose from 87 to 329. Dr. Freedman explained, “The Counseling Service staff have been deeply moved and appreciative of the growing recognition across campus of the mental health needs in our community and we look forward to ongoing conversations and partnerships in thinking through how to best serve our students and meet this rising need.”

While popular in its latest iteration, this Change.org petition stands as merely the latest in a series of student-led calls for changes in the treatment of mental health issues by the Administration. In 2013, the Campus Life Committee released six demands of the Administration, one of which included additions to Metcalf.

According to the petition statement, “the creation of a postdoctoral position within Counseling Services is necessary to meet the needs of the student body…Future hiring decisions must prioritize experience with and commitment to serving students from marginalized identity groups.”

It continued, “There must be expansion psychiatric consultation services to meet the needs of students with financial need [and] increased outreach to students and [an] increase in the visibility of counseling services.”

Last year, in their letter to President Hill, the VSA advocated for the hiring of a post-doctoral fellow—a position now used at Metcalf—in accordance with the six demands of Campus Climate, a student-run pressure group. They hoped that the creation of this position would alleviate some of the increased pressure on Metcalf in light of rising student need. The letter stated, “The VSA Council feels hiring a post-doctoral fellow is necessary not just to remain in line with our peers, but most importantly, to satisfy a growing need in our community…As mental health affects all aspects of student life, VSA Council feels adequately staffing our counseling center should be a top priority.”

Although it has far surpassed its target number of signatures, the future of the online petition remains unclear. Currently, the Administration has yet to respond. The VSA, despite having promised to have meetings on the issue of mental health care provisions led by VP for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga ’16, has yet to propose any bills regarding the issues discussed in the petition.

Meanwhile, the petition now includes a feature asking for participants to anonymously answer several questions in regards to their relationship with and attitudes towards the College’s mental health provisions, which may be used as evidence in an educational campaign in the coming months.

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