The state of Vassar’s mental health services: an exposé

Pictured above are Metcalf’s counselors. According to the Director of Counseling Services Wendy Freedman, Metcalf currently has more counselors than ever before. However, students struggling with mental health conditions still have barriers in place to getting help, be it bureaucratic obstacles or stigmas. Photo By: Megan Griffiths
Pictured above are Metcalf’s counselors. According to the Director of Counseling Services Wendy Freedman, Metcalf currently has more counselors than ever before. However, students struggling with mental health conditions still have barriers in place to getting help, be it bureaucratic obstacles or stigmas. Photo By: Megan Griffiths
Pictured above are Metcalf’s counselors. According to the Director of Counseling Services Wendy Freedman, Metcalf currently has more counselors than ever before. However, students struggling with mental health conditions still have barriers in place to getting help, be it bureaucratic obstacles or stigmas. Photo By: Megan Griffiths

“I lost track of how many classes I’ve missed so long ago,” admitted Lucy*. “Maybe once a week if it’s an extremely good week, two or three a week if it’s an average week, and,” she trailed off, “I’m too embarrassed to continue.”

Despite these absences, Lucy ’18 isn’t failing her classes. She explained, “The majority of my professors are surprisingly understanding. But I do get the strange feeling that they’re a lot more willing to help me as a victim of campus sexual assault, rather than a student struggling with mental disabilities. These two identities of mine are absolutely inseparable, but somehow it’s a lot easier to get people to sympathize with one versus the other.”

Recently, Vassar and colleges across the country have been grappling with these problems that are becoming increasingly endemic to their campuses. They are, of course, tied: If universities cannot end sexual assault, many students will rely on mental health services to deal with trauma. Vassar, many would say, has fallen short on both counts.

In February 2014, the VSA council sent a letter to senior-level administration calling Metcalf to open a post-doctoral fellow position (The Miscellany News.“VSA addresses increased need for counseling services.” 2.5.14). This past December, a group called Vassar Students for Mental Health garnered over 1,000 signatures on their online petition calling for improvements to Metcalf. Again, the VSA penned a letter of endorsement, emphasizing the need for better counseling service staffing. In just one year’s time, crisis calls had seen a 27 percent increase and a 375 percent increase in on-call and weekend contacts (The Miscellany News. “Over 1,000 sign petition to improve mental health services.” 12.3.14).

Following this collective outcry, Hill sent out a campus-wide email at the end of the Fall 2014 semester, outlining ways the Administration was working toward improving Vassar’s mental health services. “We are establishing a Mental Health and Wellness Support Fund to eliminate financial barriers to accessing those services both on and off campus, including resources to cover transportation and co-pay expenses,” wrote Hill. She continued, promising to fill the open position of assistant director of Counseling Service as soon as possible. “We will also add one more counselor position and make permanent the post-doctoral fellow position in order to expand group counseling opportunities and decrease waiting time for appointments,” she wrote.

The College has followed through on these promises: The post-doctoral position is now permanent, Metcalf is approved to hire an additional counselor and, according to Director of Counseling Wendy Freedman, at least 20 students use the Mental Health and Wellness Support Fund. Freedman said MetCalf has the most counselors its ever had in her 11 years at Vassar.

Still, student need has been difficult to keep up with. Every year, Metcalf sees about 21 percent of the student body, and will have seen close to half of all students by the time they graduate. Though these numbers have remained consistent, the magnitude of student need has risen, Freedman noted. “What has increased is the severity of the mental health concerns experienced by the students seeking our services and the number of students who are in crisis and need immediate help,” wrote Freedman in an emailed statement. “Additionally, as our campus community becomes more tuned into students’ mental health concerns, requests for consultation with the Counseling Service staff has increased.”

This increased awareness is, inarguably, a good thing: Students are feeling comfortable seeking help when they need it. But they aren’t always able to make an appointment at Metcalf right away, often having to wait at least a week to meet with a counselor or receiving a referral to a counselor outside of Vassar after a few appointments.

“Overall, I think Metcalf can be helpful if you are lucky enough to find someone right for you. But even if you do find that person, don’t expect a lasting therapist-patient relationship as they are still extremely understaffed, and will most likely refer you to someone else after a few sessions,” said Lucy, who has seen two different Metcalf counselors but now talks to a counselor from her hometown twice a week. “In my experience, Metcalf uses more of a band-aid approach to help their stressed-out students get through school, so find yourself an outside therapist or ask them for referrals if you need help treating or managing more complex conditions,” she advised.

An alumna from the Class of 2013 remembered her own struggles with Metcalf as well as the shifting attitudes on campus toward the office and mental illness in general. “My first impression of Metcalf was that’s where you were sent if you were EMSed or busted by security for drug use or underage drinking. Most people I knew who had used Metcalf’s services had been obligated to do so,” she said. “Gradually, I heard of more people voluntarily using Metcalf, but heard complaints about long waiting lists or referrals to off-campus providers for long-term care.” After experiencing a traumatic event the fall of her senior year, she turned to Metcalf for counseling, but she too had to wait a week to schedule an appointment and many more weeks still to meet with Metcalf’s consulting psychiatrist to receive medication.

“[My counselor] helped me contact my professors and the Dean of Studies and and begin getting myself back on track academically as well as mentally. I wouldn’t have graduated on time without her help,” she wrote. Due to depression, she had had a difficult time meeting the demands of her classes, like Lucy.

“Two of my professors were willing to accept very, very late work and allow me to complete their courses. One professor in particular was incredibly kind to me, showing far more patience and understanding than I had expected. In general, I found that professors were respectful and accommodating when I asked for an extension,” she added.

Cecilia Graña-Rosa ’15 echoed these sentiments, stating that she has by-and-large been fortunate enough to have professors who were understanding of her mental health condition. But such is not always the case. She said, “As someone who’s been clinically depressed and has severe anxiety issues, there are some times when it’s almost impossible to get yourself out of bed and go to class. It could be for a lot of reasons: you didn’t turn in a paper on time and you’re crippled with shame and anxiety about seeing the professor, or you’ve been sleepless because of nighttime panic attacks and end up sleeping throughout the day and miss the class.” She continued, “I’ve had a lot of incredible professors who I’ve talked to about this and they’ve been accommodating, but that’s often the exception to the rule.”

Graña-Rosa maintained that the general feelings toward students who miss assignments and classes still seem to be that these students are lazy, disorganized or careless. She said, “This is far from the truth.”

Graña-Rosa, Lucy and the ’13 alumna agreed that while Vassar has made an effort to improve mental health services, some of the stigmas and biases surrounding the students who need them still thrive.

Lucy said, “It’s as if mental illness alone is never a legitimate reason for compromised academic performance. My friend had a professor who didn’t want to hear her ‘excuse,’ aka mental illness, because it makes the professor feel uncomfortable. I can’t help but think how much easier it would be if her absence was the result of a physical illness instead.”

The anonymous alumna recalled, “The dean of studies [at the time] was extremely dismissive towards me…and accused me of ‘not seeking enough help,’ implying I was exaggerating or lying about my mental health issues. I felt completely invalidated and ended up filing a formal complaint against her with the SAVP Office.”

The fact is, Graña-Rosa noted, questions of mental health get tangled up in the red tape of academic bureaucracy. She pointed out that in an email last year concerning “end-of-term reminders” then-Dean of Studies Joanne Long reminded students of the College’s official protocol concerning final assignments. Under a heading entitled “Extensions and Incompletes,” she detailed, “‘Extensions’ and ‘Incompletes’ are meant to compensate students who have lost time through no fault of their own, as for example, through illness.  They are not meant to allow extra time to students who have not been working regularly throughout the semester.” Graña-Rosa said oftentimes this last caveat can end up hurting students struggling with a mental, rather than physical, illness.

“Because the way in which some conditions manifest themselves, they are easily misperceived as negative qualities in a person…and this definitely informs how fellow students, professors and administrators view those who have said conditions,” she said, “Of course, there is a point where the condition ends and our responsibility begins, and that’s something that we struggle with understanding and self-evaluating every day, but it often seems like we’re alone in this.”

This is where Director of the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity (AEO) MaryJo Cavanaugh comes in. She said that this year 300 students have registered with the Office—”an all-time high” she noted—and at least 20 percent of these students registered on the basis of mental health concerns.

“On the surface many of the accommodations might appear to be better suited for a student with learning, attentional or even chronic medical concerns, but this is only a menu of typically offered accommodations,” said Cavanaugh. However, she stressed, the Office also offers staggered deadlines, reduced course load or advance reading lists or notice of assignments to help make school work more manageable for students with mental health conditions. Cavanaugh added, “When students work with our office we are better able to advocate for them with the Dean of Studies Office or with a particular professor. As we get to know a student, we can propose different accommodations that are appropriate to their situation.”

Lucy said she’s just begun working with the AEO this semester and so far her experience has been a positive one, with the office offering her assistance after their first appointment. “MaryJo Cavanaugh has a good understanding of the different support students with different abilities need in order to succeed. Instead of judging my occasional inability to keep up with my course load, she understands that it’s disability, not laziness, that’s compromising my performance and tries to accommodate me in the best way she can.”

Cavanaugh recognized the ways college can compound existing mental health conditions, stating, “Managing the demands of college life is difficult enough. Now add in vulnerability for anxiety or depression and sleep deprivation and we have a lot of stressed-out students who may have difficulty focusing, making decisions or producing work.”

This was the case for Lucy, who didn’t realize she suffered from mental illness until she got to Vassar. “…I hit a wall when I got to college. And I think that happens to a lot of people. The wall exposed me to a lot of pain and trauma, some fairly recent, some long-buried and ignored,” she said. “At this point, what I need most is healing–and the stress of college isn’t helping.”

Though Metcalf has a counselor available on-call, their staff is unable to be available 24 hours a day. So when struggles with mental health and the stresses of school work come to a head, many students turn to services like CARES, an organization that has trained students on call around the clock. However, recent changes to their protocol, as passed down to them from the College’s higher-ups, has forged a closer relationship between CARES and Vassar’s counseling services. Now, CARES is required to break confidentiality for any of seven reasons, including if a student plans to commit suicide, if they have self-harmed in the last 48 hours or if they haven’t eaten for the past 48 hours.

“There has certainly been an adjustment period as we strive to find a balance between implementing these new policies and upholding our commitment to the confidentiality and anonymity of our calls, as well as the safety and comfort of our callers,” wrote CARES in an emailed statement. “During a call, if we believe a caller is about to reveal something that would have us break confidentiality, we usually stop the call and let them know what our protocol is. We also disclose our protocol if someone explicitly asks about confidentiality,” they wrote, emphasizing that though they have to obey certain guidelines, they’re ultimately concerned with putting students first.

Nonetheless, they find that some of the new protocol to which they’re beholden puts a strain on their mission as an organization. “We believe that everyone is the expert of their own experience, and so our calls are focused on the caller’s comfort and agency. The protocols that we enacted last year surrounding the situations in which CARES must break confidentiality were enacted to ensure the safety of all students; however they also have the unfortunate effect of removing some control from the hands of a caller who discloses certain information to us,” they continued. “While we are legally obligated to adhere to these policies, we refuse to look at the mental health of students as a liability.”

Organizations like CARES, individual students, counselors, faculty and administrators are working to serve students’ increasing and ever-changing needs when it comes to mental health. But students currently facing the everyday struggles of mental health conditions hope change comes sooner rather than later.

Concluded Lucy, “The Administration’s efforts to improve mental health services should remain of one of their [top] priorities…It’s so easy to get two days of health advisory at Baldwin for a fever, but it’s nearly impossible to get excused for mental illness. Students should be able to get mental health days from Metcalf, and they should never have to wait three weeks to get access to mental health services on campus.”

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