As students return for a new semester, an electrifying sense of excitement fills the air. Exciting as it might be though, a new semester can also be fraught with troubles, some unforeseen and some of a more chronic nature. When life becomes so distressing for students that it exceeds their ability to cope, many turn to a variety of mental health resources essential to preserving the wellbeing of the Vassar community. Among these resources were CARES and The Listening Center, also known as TLC.
Since 1989, CARES served as an alternative to professional channels of mental health support for students who sought a greater degree of anonymity, privacy and solidarity. Along with companion organization TLC, CARES broke ground in the realm of on-campus counseling services by functioning as an entirely peer-run, 24/7 on-call listening service aimed at providing a more readily accessible outlet for students struggling with any and all personal difficulties. Specifically, CARES focused on issues related to interpersonal violence like sexual assault, while TLC was geared toward helping students manage mental and emotional strain by familiarizing them with self-help strategies.
Near the end of the Spring 2016 semester, Vassar announced that CARES and TLC would no longer be on call as of Fall 2016. Administrators informed CARES that the rationale behind this decision was an issue of liability: “[A}s soon as a student on call picks up the phone, the leaders of the organization, their licensed advisors, and the school itself are all in part responsible if harm comes to the caller” (Boilerplate, “TLC Off Call,” 06.01.2016).
TLC argued that Vassar’s solutions to the liability concerns, which included outsourcing of counselors and eliminating peer-led on call services, perpetuated a disconnect between student needs and provided mental health services. TLC wrote, “[The administration] have no well-formed plans on what resources they will be replacing us with…[or] what ‘non-professional’ support will look like going forward.”
Despite the announcements that TLC and CARES would be undergoing changes, in the last couple of weeks both organizations confirmed on their Facebook pages that, though unable to be on call, they would continue to function as peer-support groups, and have been diligently working out redevelopment plans in the interim. “The members of CARES and TLC are passionate and talented students who we know will continue to play a vital role in the campus community,” said SAVP Director and CARES advisor Charlotte Strauss Swanson in a written statement. “We have been collaborating with them throughout the summer and beginning of the school year to redefine the services and programming they will provide and are excited to support them in this work.”
Recently, TLC held a series of information sessions to publicly introduce its new changes and had announced that it would be accepting applications for peer-listener positions until Sept. 11. Meanwhile, CARES disclosed its plan for the coming semester over Facebook by outlining several proposed initiatives that it was still in the process of negotiating with administrators. These ideas include establishing survivor self-care off-campus trips, increasing the presence of Residential Life advocates in residence halls and creating a website and series of blogs which will be focused on providing resources such as information about fostering healthy relationships.
Although CARES and TLC will not be on call, Vassar does provide other mental health resources for students. According to Strauss Swanson, “Mental health and survivor support resources have been expanding…with additional hires in both the Counseling Center and the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) program, in addition to 24/7 on call support.” Nine therapists are available for students to talk to, including two new full-time staff members. Besides one-on-one appointments, the Counseling Service offers Therapy and Support groups, which allow students with similar concerns to share their experiences and offer support to one another. The continued presence of CARES and TLC complements this renewed effort on the part of the administration to address the demand for mental health resources as the semester unfolds.
Although their plans are currently tentative, one thing remains certain: CARES and TLC are resolutely committed to maintaining peer-led, non-judgmental and survivor-centered spaces despite the termination of its on-call service. “[T]he Administration stands by its decision that peer-to-peer support cannot occur at Vassar and has not indicated to CARES otherwise,” said CARES member Julian Dishart ’17 in an emailed statement. “Because of this, CARES is moving in a new direction to serve the campus through programming, education, and fostering community for survivors.”
Can the possibility for future on-call services be ruled out entirely though? “Peer-listening services exist at larger institutions and are usually supervised in person by a licensed counselor,” Dishart added. “If the administration was interested in attempting this model, I am confident students would be eager and qualified to fill this role.”