Overwhelmed But Not Without Hope: How Students are Attempting to Improve Mental Health at Yale

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In his address to incoming freshmen on September 13, newly appointed University President Peter Salovey remarked that one of the “last taboos among Yale students” involves talking about socioeconomic status. “When the issue of money comes up, students are often profoundly uncomfortable,” he said. “To the Class of 2017, I encourage you to be sensitive and open to one another. The uncomfortable conversations that you will certainly have represent opportunities for true understanding and true friendship.”

What Salovey did not mention was mental health. Since becoming University President, the closest he has come to publically addressing this topic was a convocation speech he gave at the Hopkins School — a coeducational institution for grades 7-12 in New Haven — on Nov. 13. Salovey discussed his work as a psychologist, focusing on “emotional intelligence,” a concept he developed with colleagues in the 1990s. In an interview with the News after the speech, Salovey said that he wanted to show how observing emotions provides useful data about people, and that it is important to persist in the face of struggle. (Contacted by email in late October, Salovey wrote that he would be unavailable to comment for this article.)

As reports issued by Yale undergraduates and their graduate and professional school counterparts have indicated, it is not uncommon for students to struggle with mental health; Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling (MH&C) department sees more than 20 percent of the entire student body each year, and that number only continues to grow. The result has been increased wait-times and variable quality of care at MH&C.

So far, top University officials have not openly discussed their efforts to reform mental health resources on campus. Besides an email sent by the Office of the Secretary and Vice President in December, which said “discussions and collaborative efforts have been underway at all levels,” campus-wide communications have been slim. The University’s relative silence on this issue has increasingly caused student leaders, masters and deans to take matters into their own hands in making Yale a happier and healthier place.

Changing the Culture of the Place

Elizabeth Bradley, Stephen Davis and Jeffrey Brenzel ’75 — of Branford, Pierson and Timothy Dwight Colleges, respectively —are three such masters already working toward this end. Bradley, who is a professor of public health and directs the Yale Global Health Initiative, says she sees part of her role as master as contributing to “a culture of greater balance” among undergraduates. Davis, appointed master this year, says he wants his office to be a “safe space” for students, where they can feel comfortable sharing both their successes and struggles. Brenzel, too, hopes to foster this type of environment within his own college. His former position as Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, however, also allows him to see the systemic causes behind a campus culture where mental health concerns abound.

“We’ve picked people who are extremely intelligent but who are unusual in their expectations for themselves,” Brenzel says. “We have a group of students here whose identity is wrapped around achievement, so when something throws them off it can snowball.”

Still, all three masters agree that managing students’ expectations about mental health resources on campus could improve negative perceptions of MH&C.

Michelle Ross ’12* attributes many Yale students’ dissatisfaction with MH&C to a lack of understanding about mental health treatment. Ross began her visits to the center after a suitemate sexually harassed her during her junior year and she became “deeply depressed.” There, a social worker taught her coping skills that were specifically tailored to her situation, but she admits that she had to see multiple clinicians before she felt comfortable.

“Mental health care is so much about rapport and the therapist-client alliance,” Ross explains. “The times when you’re trying your hardest, you have to keep trying to find someone who’s a better fit for you.”

Ross adds that few Yale undergrads question the expectations set by themselves and the University’s larger “success-driven” culture. If more professors and administrators were willing to be open about their own mental health struggles, she notes, students might feel less alone. “You never hear administrators speaking about tough times they went through; you only hear that it’s okay to have a tough time,” Ross says. “That’s great, but make it real. Show that you’re human, that these people who are huge successes have struggled also.”

For some administrators, the constant pressure to succeed is ultimately at the root of students’ mental health concerns, along with their unrealistic expectations of treatment. University Chaplain Sharon Kugler believes students need to learn how to “step off the Yale treadmill” and take care of themselves, asking for help from others when needed. “You’re messaged from day one that you’re tomorrow’s leaders,” she says. “My soapbox speech is: You are tomorrow’s whole people. What you can be is healthy and have a sense of what it means to fail and survive.”

A Tale of Two Ivies

Although students groups such as Mind Matters and Walden Peer Counseling are seeking to increase mental health dialogue on campus, there is no student liaison group specifically endorsed by MH&C. Instead, each residential college has a Mental Health Fellow — a trained clinician who can advise students on how to navigate Yale’s peer and institutional resources. The program was created in 2011 as a joint collaboration between YCC and MH&C. Fellows meet incoming freshmen during orientation and can accelerate the treatment process for students who reach out to them in need.

But few undergrads seem to know that the fellows exist or how they function in the overall scheme of Yale’s mental health resources. “The residential college Mental Health Fellows can and should be on the front lines of getting these messages out,” the YCC report stated. “Right now, however, a lot of confusion exists around the [program]. While some residential college administrators have introduced students to their fellows, most students we surveyed do not know what the fellows do.” There is no information about the Mental Health Fellows on the websites of MH&C, the Dean’s Office or individual residential colleges.

“Exactly how this program is supposed to work is deeply unclear to me,” Reuben Hendler, one of the YCC report authors, says. “What are the different roles of every party? I don’t have a clear picture of how those parts are supposed to interact.”

Harvard may offer some lessons about tackling mental health issues in an academically intense environment. Since 2008, Harvard has had a Student Mental Health Liaisons (SMHL) program that was founded by the Department of Behavioral and Academic Counseling at Harvard University Health Services and Harvard students themselves, as part of an ongoing effort to promote emotional well-being on campus.

According to Angela Lee, a Harvard senior who currently serves as co-president of SMHL, the group has grown to include over 30 students spread across the College’s 13 residential houses, whose job is to raise awareness about mental health issues and resources. Liaisons host mental health workshops for freshmen each year, run a wellness blog on their website and serve to connect peers with the University’s resources, Lee said.

SMHL also strives to reach students in innovative ways. In August 2012, the group created an online video platform called “Harvard Speaks Up” to address stigma surrounding mental health concerns. Championed by former SMHL co-presidents Seth Cassel ’13 and Meghan Smith ’13, “Harvard Speaks Up” hosts short videos recorded by members of the Harvard community talking about their personal struggles and encouraging others to seek treatment. Those who have given testimonies include Paul Barreira, Director of Harvard University Health Services, Steven Hyman, former Harvard University Provost and former Director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, and renowned Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. The videos typically last under five minutes, and the website contains links to both peer and professional mental health resources at Harvard — precisely the type of program that Michelle Ross believes would benefit Yale.

“What was really surprising to me was professors and administrators opening up about their own experiences and struggles and that they were willing to be vulnerable ,” Lee recalls. “Some students were like, ‘Wow, I had no idea so many people were struggling.’”

Cassel says the project garnered positive reactions from administrators and students alike, and sparked productive dialogue across Harvard’s campus. “The basis of SMHL is that students respond best to what their peers are saying,” Cassel explains. “Fellow students are more likely to be responsive to the message of getting help if it’s normal that people like them are doing it too.”

Next Steps

On November 16, about 30 Yalies met at 17 Hillhouse Ave. to attend an open “Forum on Wellbeing and Campus Culture” organized by the authors of the YCC Report on Mental Health. The choice of venue could not have been more apt — Yale Health was formerly located at 17 Hillhouse before moving to 55 Lock St. in 2010. Refurbished during the summer of 2012, the building now serves as classroom space.

The attendees came for different reasons; some were leaders of student organizations, while others wished to voice their concerns about Yale Health. At the beginning of the meeting, the authors of the report distributed a “mental health reference sheet” compiled by the YCC, detailing Yale’s institutional and peer resources, as well as a list of student organizations devoted to student wellness. Members of the group broke into small brainstorming sessions structured around mental health publicity, residential college resources, a potential website like “Harvard Speaks Up” and a “Mental Health Week” that would be similar to Yale’s biennial “Sex Week.”

Hendler notes the meeting was the first of its kind, “at least in recent memory.” Future forums, he continues, will be organized to gauge the progress being made on mental health initiatives, such as workshops, a residential college liaison program and alternative behavioral therapies. Such projects could help reduce the backlog of students at Mental Health and Counseling. In an early January email, Hendler said he and the other authors of the YCC report would contact various student organizations devoted to mental health, in the hopes of forming a coalition that would coordinate projects and communicate with the Yale administration.

“I was initially skeptical of creating yet another organizational structure but have become convinced that this is the best way to accomplish these goals,” Hendler wrote. “Supposing that people sign on, I anticipate a first meeting within the first few weeks of the semester, focused on putting together a mental health week for the spring.”

Christopher Datsikas ’16, the president of Mind Matters, says he was most intrigued by the prospect of a Mental Health Week, where students could attend panels on a variety of topics and promote conversation on campus. Although Datsikas believes it would be difficult to coordinate the logistics of such an event — including which students would be in charge and how much the University’s administration would be involved — he feels hopeful that a Mental Health Week could be organized within the next two years.

“It’s not an instant fix; it’s not like we put out the report and suddenly campus culture has changed,” Hendler admits. “But we believe in the good faith of the administration, and we’re trying to engage with them constructively by focusing on common ground.”

In the waning weeks of the fall semester, meetings about mental health also occurred among the college’s masters and deans. Although these meetings were “confidential,” Brenzel said in a mid-November email that there would be a follow-up by the 12 residential college masters with the YCC. Bradley added that the meetings were “engaged, productive and collaborative” with “a commitment made to try to move ahead wisely.”

Caroline Posner ’17 represents the next generation of Yale undergrads for whom such discussions may ultimately matter. A freshman in Berkeley College, Posner has lived with an anxiety disorder since the third grade, a condition she wrote about in an October 9 opinion column for the News, “Addressing mental illness.” Given Yale’s tremendous progress on issues such as sexual misconduct, Posner wrote, it’s time for the University to tackle questions of mental health with an equal commitment.

Today Posner says she is “cautiously optimistic” that Yale’s mental health environment and resources will improve during her time here. She adds that the path to clinical treatment at Yale Health should be made “as clear as possible” and that students themselves should be more open about their struggles.

“The expectation is that we’re good and functioning all the time,” Posner explains. “I don’t know necessarily why that is. Maybe it’s that Yale is painted as such a happy place where people function on these surreal levels, balancing a job, five classes with Nobel laureates and three extracurricular activities. That’s true sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re always in a good place mentally or emotionally.”
“Somebody needs to say it a little louder.”

 

*Name has been changed.

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