Almost exactly two years ago, the Yale College Dean’s Office instituted a mandatory bystander intervention program for sophomores to train students to intervene in situations leading to sexual assault and to foster a campus culture with less sexual violence. While I have no idea whether the bystander intervention program has been effective, the central principle behind it is compelling: Take an almost intractable problem with our campus culture and teach students how to mitigate its day-to-day consequences through their actions. The problem of sexual assault on college campuses is large and deep-rooted — the bystander intervention program gives members of our community the tools to help make things better in individual, everyday situations.
In the wake of last Tuesday’s tragedy — when Luchang Wang ’17 took her life — the challenge of mental illness at Yale seems more relevant than ever. Over half of all undergraduates will seek assistance for mental health issues during their time at Yale, and it is clear that our community is not providing the level of medical support they need. Every semester, student testimonials draw attention to the numerous issues with Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling Department, and the University’s opaque policies on withdrawal and readmission worsen matters further.
Yet the framework of the bystander intervention program can be instructive in the case of mental health. Even if we cannot immediately address the root causes of mental illness on campus, and even if it takes time for Yale to drastically improve its mental health services and associated policies, our community can work to teach each other how to be more supportive of those with mental health issues. We are bystanders every day to those suffering from mental illness, and there are small, concrete ways in which we can help make things better for them.
It is unambiguous that nothing is more important for helping those with mental illness than professional counseling and assistance. Yet, the support of one’s friends and community can sometimes make a difference. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists “community” as one of the “four dimensions of recovery” from mental illness and emphasizes the important role that friends and family can play in recognizing signs of mental health problems in loved ones.
Mentalhealth.gov, a project of the Department of Health and Human Services, lists several tips for the friends of those who might have mental health issues: continuing to include them in plans without being overbearing, being responsive when mental health issues come up and offering to help with everyday tasks, to name a few. The website also offers several sample questions for starting conversations about mental health and ways to recognize when others are suffering.
Yet, very few of us have an intuitive grasp of these steps. We feel awkward when talking about mental illness, not sure what to say or how we can help. Speaking personally, even having read through most of Mentalhealth.gov, I would not really know how to offer a friend with mental health issues much more than a hug and a reassurance of my continued support.
Our community needs something analogous to the bystander intervention program, but focused on mental illness: training sessions for how to show support, sensitivity and respect to those closest to us with mental health issues. Obviously, intervention is the entirely wrong word here. The sessions would discuss how to offer friends help without being prying, overbearing or alienating.
A mental health bystander program should definitely not be mandatory for all students because bureaucratic requirements are rarely as meaningful as voluntary participation, and because the issues in question are particularly sensitive. Nor does it even necessarily need to be organized by the administration. Ideally, the program would help create a campus culture where those with mental health issues know that there are many other students who are comfortable having conversations with them and able to give them support.
Sexual assault and mental illness are different problems, yet both stem from root causes that we cannot easily eliminate, and both can be alleviated in small but important ways in day-to-day life when we come together as a community.
One of the boldest moral exhortations in the Western tradition is found in Leviticus: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” While we push Yale to improve its support for students with mental health issues, we can also take steps ourselves to become a more supportive community, to transform ourselves from bystanders to part of the solution.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com.