In response to the Dean of the College Search Committee’s question of what he believed to be the most pressing issue at Vassar, then Interim Dean Carlos Alamo-Pastrana immediately replied “mental health” (The Miscellany News, “Dean of College Search Narrows,” 02.13.2019). In fact, every candidate expressed their interest in promoting the overall well-being of Vassar students, demonstrating awareness that mental health concerns are an increasingly pertinent issue on college campuses nationwide. In light of the candidates’ remarks and Metcalf’s recent efforts to hire a new counselor, it is critical to assess the successes and shortcomings of Vassar’s mental health services.
According to data provided by Director of the Psychological Services Wendy Freedman, the number of students seen at Metcalf skyrocketed from 484 in the 2014– 2015 academic year to 664 in 2017–2018—a 37.19 percent increase. Notably, Alamo-Pastrana explained via email that these numbers may not necessarily indicate a new crisis, but rather represent widespread efforts to destigmatize seeking support. In an apt response to both national trends and on-campus demand, Vassar College’s Counseling Services (VCCS) has worked to creatively expand services. At the beginning of the spring semester, VCCS offered four new workshops to address common issues college students face (Vassar Stories, “Helping Students Cope,” 01.24.2019). According to an emailed statement from Freedman, “Many times students believe that individual therapy is the only model that will address their needs. However, the research shows that other modalities can be just as effective and sometimes more effective.” VCCS therefore offers an assortment of collaborative approaches that promote mental health solidarity and, in some cases, collective healing.
VCCS also created a range of therapy groups, featuring topics such as navigating college as a first-generation student, practicing mindfulness and coping with loss. Led by one or two of Metcalf’s staff therapists, each of whom has a distinct specialty and background, groups meet weekly, providing students with a space to learn from each other and feel less alone. Freedman cited VCCS’s group counseling services as one of its biggest strengths.
Yet despite its successes, VCCS has room for improvement. Limited resources at Vassar, including time constraints and finite staffing, lead to what students often characterize as rushed solutions to deeper issues. According to Freedman, “College counseling services are designed to provide short term therapy support to students around factors that are inhibiting their ability to thrive in an academic setting.” The intention to provide temporary aid inherently hinders therapists’ ability to foster meaningful longer-term relationships with students, who can typically only meet with their counselor every other week due to scheduling constraints. As a result, counselors often encourage students to seek help from off-campus resources, a situation that leaves students feeling overlooked and discouraged. Outside psychotherapy services can also be prohibitively expensive, often costing upwards of $200 per session. In addition, only 55 percent of psychiatrists accept insurance plans, compared to 89 percent of other health care providers (Huffington Post, “Why is Therapy So Expensive?” 05.04.2017). As a result, Metcalf therapists try to prioritize students for whom accessibility is an issue. Even so, because of the sheer quantity of students seeking counseling, VCCS is simply unable to provide long-term individual psychotherapy for everyone.
Despite what students may assume, Freedman indicated that Vassar’s Counseling Services are considered well-staffed compared to peer institutions. Freedman claimed that VCCS would be open to hiring more therapists, but stipulated, “It is not financially sustainable for the college to be able to indefinitely add to our staffing.” However, other Northeastern colleges of comparable size to Vassar do in fact have better-staffed mental health services. Wesleyan has 16 counseling staff members (Wesleyan University Counseling and Psychological Services, “Meet Our Staff,” 2018) and Williams has 21 involved in psychotherapy (Williams Student Health and Wellness Services, “Who We Are”) while Vassar only has eight on staff. It’s also important to acknowledge, however, that some colleges do have comparable staffs to Vassar’s. Bard College, for example, also has eight counselors, as well as a therapy dog—perhaps a staffing decision that Vassar should emulate? (Bard Counseling Services, “About Counseling Services”).
In the face of logistical and financial restrictions, Vassar has worked to destigmatize mental health and build a communal approach to overcoming struggles. Alamo-Pastrana cited recent projects of the Office and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices as examples of this shift. He explained, “Last semester they brought a labyrinth into the Villard [R] oom, and it was great to hear from several students how peaceful and rewarding they found being able to walk through the labyrinth. These kinds of practices…allow us to re-center ourselves and spend valuable time with and processing our emotions.”
Such efforts serve as vital steps toward making Vassar a supportive, accessible community, and The Miscellany News commends VCCS for their recent strides. However, small-scale reforms are insufficient for resolving the crisis of widespread anxiety and depression among students. Until mental health concerns are universally viewed with the same level of importance as physical ailments, affected students will continue to face limited support options; thus, Vassar students and administrators must join VCCS in recognizing the provision of sufficient mental health services as imperative, not optional.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of the Miscellany News Editorial Board