Masters, deans and freshman counselors have been integral parts of Yale’s residential college system for years. But this fall, Yalies are being introduced to new support staff — mental health fellows.
The mental health fellows program is the result of a joint collaboration between the Yale College Council and Yale Health’s mental health and counseling department. YCC President Brandon Levin ’13 said the program will provide each college with a trained Yale mental health clinician to advise students on how best to navigate the University’s mental health resources.
Howard Blue, clinical director of mental health, said in an email last week that the fellows are in the process of meeting all incoming freshmen and introducing them to existing counseling resources at Yale Health.
“It can be daunting to reach out for help,” Blue said. “The mental health fellow can help facilitate that process by being available to students to answer any of their questions or concerns.”
Levin said fellows will hold office hours in the college and help students find support through organizations such as Yale Mental Health, Sexual Harrasment Assault Resources and Education (SHARE) Center and Queer Peers.
“I think this initiative is making students more aware of all the mental health resources,” said Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry.
The program is a continuation of a prior “mental health liaison” program that had existed for several decades, Blue said. Each residential college was previously assigned a liaison from Yale Mental Health who would “consult with masters and deans regarding general mental health issues.”
Levin said that YCC found several faults with the old mental health liaison program. He called the liaisons’ college affiliations “functionally meaningless” since the liaisons had no physical presence in the residential colleges and did not meet with students — only with the dean, master and freshmen counselors of their respective colleges.
“I was of the perspective that the residential college system works and we needed to tap [into] that more,” Levin said.
The fellows program, which Levin developed with current YCC Vice President Omar Njie ’13, is not the YCC’s first attempt to change Yale’s mental health system.
Mental health reform has been a recurring theme in YCC campaigns since the death of Cameron Dabaghi ’11, who fell from the Empire State Building in April 2010. Lorraine Siggins, chief psychiatrist at Yale Health, wrote in an email last week that the YCC has been trying to “facilitate more interaction between the liaisons and the students” since then.
Last winter, Annie Shi ’12, leader of the YCC’s mental health project group, began work on a mental health peer-advising program. Seniors in the residential colleges would act as “hands-off freshman counselors” and help advise sophomores on both academic and life issues, Shi told the News in an interview this January. Shi worked on the program in consultation with Siggins throughout the spring semester, but the initiative was never implemented. Shi said she did not have enough time in her term as YCC vice president to follow through on the project, but added that last year served as a good “brainstorming period.”
Levin and Njie stressed that they “started fresh” with their concept for the mental health fellows program, which the two said they were able to implement in part because Levin “got the ball rolling early” and met with Yale Health administrators to discuss the project one week after winning the YCC election in April.
“We could have had students advising in the colleges, but that would have been like putting a Band-Aid on something that required surgery,” Levin said.
Instead of employing students, Levin said the YCC and Yale Health decided on a “reallocation of resources,” by which the health liaisons would become mental health fellows with new duties, such as hosting office hours and leading workshops within the colleges.
But some students interviewed said they are unsure whether the new fellows program will address their issues with Yale’s mental health services.
Six of seven sophomores, juniors and seniors interviewed said that they think mental health fellows could be helpful for some students, but none said that they had ever needed such guidance during their time at Yale.
“I think the crux of it is that after freshman year, you have to take the initiative when seeking advice,” said Charles Stone ’14. “I don’t need someone to hold my hand right now, but I think it’s a useful resource to have in place.”
Peter Jasinski ’12, a Davenport College freshman counselor, said that students “are not always as close to their dean as would be best.” A designated mental health adviser might be a helpful source of advice on social issues, he added, since some Yalies are uncomfortable approaching deans about that topic.
But other students think that the fellows program does not fully meet the University’s need for better mental health resources.
One male sophomore who asked not to be identified given the nature of his illness said that he attended several substance abuse counseling sessions at Yale Health’s mental health department before his counselor unexpectedly cancelled one of their meetings. He said the counselor never contacted him to reschedule counseling, and his treatment ended there.
“Maybe it’s stupid and petty of me, but I didn’t really feel like I was a priority and was uncomfortable going back,” the student said. “I think they need to do a better job of centralizing their resources.”
The student added that because “there is already a general reluctance to go to mental health,” the department should try to reach out to students who may not feel comfortable seeking help directly, as well as follow up with current patients in a timely manner.
Siggins said 17 to 22 percent of Yale students consult Yale Health’s mental health department each year. Of the 1,316 undergraduates who responded to a 2010 YCC policy survey, 20 percent said they had used Yale Health’s mental health resources.