YCC focuses on mental health

The Yale College Council began examining the University’s mental health resources at the beginning of this semester, and in light of the death last week of Cameron Dabaghi ’11, reforming the system has emerged as one of the main issues in this year’s YCC elections.

The platforms of all but two of the candidates running for YCC president and vice president include improving mental health counseling. Though Yale University Health Services administrators are already taking steps to expand mental health services this week and are planning for when they move into the new YUHS building this summer, students and the YCC candidates who endorse mental health reform say Yale needs to reduce wait times and improve the quality of counseling at the Department of Mental Hygiene.

“It was always an important issue,” current YCC president Jon Wu ’11 said.

In response to last week’s tragedy, the mental health counseling department will be supplying extra counselors to be on call in the evenings this week and through the weekend, Chief Psychiatrist Lorraine Siggins said, adding that some residential colleges are providing counselors to meet with groups of students as well.

Siggins said 17 to 22 percent of Yale students consult the department each year. Of the 1,316 undergraduates who responded to a YCC policy survey earlier this year, 20 percent said they had used YUHS’s mental health resources.

But the poll also revealed student dissatisfaction with the wait-times for counseling appointments and with the quality of counseling. Of the poll’s respondents, 34 percent said they were able to make an appointment to see a counselor within a week and 16 percent within one to two days, while 29 percent said it was more than two weeks before they were able to have a therapy session.

Siggins said moving into the newly constructed YUHS building at 55 Lock St. this summer will allow the department more capacity to grow. There will be room for all 23 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, she said, giving them the ability to offer group therapy sessions, as well as individual sessions and extended counseling hours.

The new building provides the YCC with an opportunity to push policy reforms forward, Wu said. This semester, beyond collecting information on student satisfaction with the department, the YCC has scheduled meetings with Siggins and Yale College Dean Mary Miller to begin discussing their findings. Beyond working with YUHS to bring trained professionals into every residential college and urging Siggins to expand YUHS’s current services, Wu said, the YCC is also discussing a panel for incoming freshmen on Opening Days to alert them to the support resources available to them. YCC may also try to establish a peer counseling program for upperclassmen that is modeled on the freshmen counselor program in conjunction with the Yale College Dean’s Office, Wu added.

But it will be up to next year’s executive board to act on the findings of this year’s YCC. Presidential candidate Pete Croughan ’12, an associate representative on the YCC and co-chair of the Spring Fling Committee, said he thinks decreasing wait times and preventing patients from getting “lost in the system” should be a priority for the administration.

“I think it’s great that it’s in everyone’s platform,” Croughan said, adding that, along with institutional reform, he supports current YCC discussions toward establishing counseling professionals within each residential college.

The YCC’s work on the issue so far shows that students want the scheduling process at YUHS to improve, presidential candidate Jeff Gordon ’12 said.

Though students have said they are usually able to schedule a first appointment, they often wait three or four weeks for follow-up appointments, he said, adding that administrators appear willing to dedicate funds to hire more counselors.

“It’s one of those cases where money is simply the answer,” Gordon said.

Gordon said his focus on counseling stemmed from the YCC’s policy work on mental health this semester but last week’s events gave the issue added relevance.

Presidential candidate Courtney Pannell ’11, who is currently on the YCC project group that is tasked with reforming mental health services, said she has long-standing interest in the topic and that, especially after last week’s events, it makes sense that changing the support system for students would be a prevalent topic. (Pannell is a multimedia editor for the News.)

“Yale is a very high-pressure environment,” she said. “I think we’re all a little stressed to the breaking point.”

Victoria Gilcrease-Garcia ’12, who is running for vice president and works alongside Pannell on the YCC project group charged with examining mental health services, said that in addition to long wait times, Yale’s mental health services suffered from poor communication with students. For instance, she said students do not know that they can switch counselors if they are dissatisfied with their first therapist. The YCC should lobby the administration to provide clearer information about mental health services and funnel more resources into providing specialized services such as counselors for eating disorders and other specific disorders, Gilcrease-Garcia added.

One of the candidates who did not explicitly make mental health a pillar of his platform, Guillermo Peralta ’12, said he built his vice-presidential platform around issues he worked on this past year — such as financial aid and sexual harassment policy — and that mental health was not one of them. But he said he is open to learning more about the issue and participating in reform. The other, Hoan Huynh ’12, who is also in the vice presidential race, said he supports mental health reform and advocates placing a mental health professional in each of the residential colleges, but mental health is not one of his primary platform issues.

Vice presidential candidate Annie Shi ’12 could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, individual residential colleges are taking their own steps to support students’ mental health by fostering a sense of community. Jaya Wen ’12, an Ezra Stiles College student activities committee co-chair, said she is working with Stiles Master Stephen Pitti to form a student committee and create programs that might help facilitate a more positive outlook within the college. Stiles students, most of whom live in singles, often feel isolated, Wen said.

“The basic idea stems from the fact that a lot of my friends were dealing with mental health issues, and there was not a system in place to deal with these problems,” she said, adding that the void in services is not necessarily one that can be solved by YUHS, but can be helped by “trying to foster a stronger sense of community, valuing people and enjoying life.”

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