Regarding this Staff Editorial, Director of Psychological Services Wendy Freedman submitted this clarification about Counseling Services’ finals schedule policy.
“The Vassar College Counseling Service wants to ensure that students have accurate information about the availability of campus mental health services at the end of the semester. The Counseling Service is open and available to see students through the last day of finals, Friday December 18th. During study week and finals, we open our schedules to offer walk-in crisis appointments during this potentially highly-stressful time. This provides us the flexibility to assist students when they are most needing the support. The Counselor on Call is available 24/7 during study week and finals, and also throughout the winter break, and can be accessed by calling the Campus Response Center at 845-437-7333.”
Most students have experienced the insufficiency of Vassar’s health services, in particular, mental health services. Almost two years ago in February 2014, the VSA council called for Metcalf to open a post-doctoral fellow position in order to expand the limited staff and to meet increasing demand for counseling services (The Miscellany News.“VSA addresses increased need for counseling services.” 2.5.14).
Last December, a group called Vassar Students for Mental Health garnered over 1,000 signatures on their online petition calling for improvements to Metcalf. In response, the VSA drafted a letter of endorsement, emphasizing the need for better staffing in counseling service (The Miscellany News. “Over 1,000 sign petition to improve mental health services.” 12.3.14). Despite such consistent efforts pushing for better mental health services, we at the Miscellany News believe that Metcalf remains inadequate, especially at the end of the semester, when there is a higher need for counseling services and medical support.
As the face of all mental health services on campus, Metcalf has failed to establish a strong relationship with students. Many students pass by the red-brick building between Swift Hall and the Old Observatory without knowing its purpose. Knowing the purpose of the building is almost entirely linked to previous experiences with Metcalf. For students seeking assistance for the first time, it can be confusing and troublesome to find sufficient guidance.
One of the reasons for Metcalf ’s lack of visibility is that the Administration hasn’t done enough to expand the outreach and impact of mental health services on campus. While it has 13 group counseling offerings, Metcalf only sends out one email at the beginning of each semester with information about these support and therapy groups. Consequently, many students are either unaware of these options or unsure about how to participate in them. During finals, Metcalf organizes many stress buster events, which could be better publicized for more students to take advantage of them.
Additionally, the hours of Metcalf are not sufficient. Open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., it offers counseling and other services only during the academic year. More importantly, it ceases to book appointments during the study break before finals, when students are in more need of their services. Although there’s the option of a counselor-on-call for evenings and weekends during the academic year, Metcalf leaves too many students without the support they need.
Baldwin House has similar problems. Home to most medical services, Baldwin has hours limited to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. This is hardly an optimal schedule for unwell students unable or unwilling go to a hospital. During the night, there is a nurse on-call, but their ability to do full diagnostics and majors tests is minimal.
The limited number of counselors and staff at Metcalf must also be addressed. With the recent number of hires, Metcalf has been improving and is now able to arrange appointments within one to two days. However, it still remains markedly understaffed. Many report that campus counselors only see students a few times before they refer students to off-campus services. Being sent off-campus not only means extra costs for transportation, but also more confusion in terms of understanding insurance coverage and finding a suitable counselor or therapist.
Going off campus can be frustrating, especially for people with no means to get to and from appointments. Taxis and other forms of public transportation are neither easily affordable nor reliable in Poughkeepsie.
Recently, the VSA Student Life committee crafted an initiative that seeks to address this gap in accessibility. The committee has sent a transportation letter initiative to various senior level administrators, calling for transportation for students who seek off-campus counseling, off-campus prescription medications and transportation to and from the hospital. While we at the Miscellany News applaud this step forward, we think that more can be done to develop exchange to and from campus.
Moreover, off-campus services often result in confusions and difficulties about finding the right resources and assistance. Some off-campus counselors that students are referred to failed to respond to student needs. The only guidance Metcalf provides for students to find a suitable off-campus counselor is a two-page handout with general, vague information that’s rarely helpful.
The problem people most frequently encounter is probably insurance issues, both for mental health and other medical services. The manner in which Vassar provides its student’s health insurance is unacceptable. The “Student Accident and Sickness Insurance Plan” provided by Gallagher Student Health & Special Risk is too difficult to navigate. There should be institutional support available for students that are experiencing mental health crises. Students also should not have to worry about money and filling out forms when they come into the insurance office.
College is hard enough without having to figure out what is covered by insurance. This added stress is not alleviated by Vassar health professionals. Their lack of knowledge about coverage and deductibles leaves an absence of someone on campus who can help students navigate coverage.
Lack of transparency of the plan appears to be a theme with this student insurance. The alleged release of confidential STI test results to parents is just one example. An STI test administered by Baldwin is sent to a lab that bills the student’s account, unbeknownst to the student. This allows the parents to see that their child had the test performed.
Considering other places nearby that offer free STI testing such as the Dutchess County Health Department and Planned Parenthood of the Mid-Hudson Valley, students should not have to worry about their parents finding out about their private lives. Baldwin needs to disclose what charges they make to students accounts resulting from these tests. In addition, the campus should provide free STI testing regardless of insurance as part of the Vassar’s mission to make college life more accessible.
We at the Miscellany News consider mental health and health services a basic student necessity. While we recognize the previous efforts by the VSA and college administrations to improve the quality of medical services on campus, there is still more for the college to do to radically transform student quality of life.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.