In the on-again-off-again cycle of mental health advocacy at Yale, the death of a student has once again thrust the University into a period of intense conversation about how students with mental illnesses fare here, and led some to wonder what will transform conversation into action.
The current conversation coincides with national attention to college students’ mental health — with a University of California Los Angeles survey reporting that 9.5 percent of American college freshmen reported feeling frequently depressed during the past year, up 3.4 percent from five years ago.
But in the wake of recent events on campus, students interviewed said the conversation here at Yale is playing out differently than it has in the past.
“For those of us who’ve been here for [a few] years, we feel like we’ve talked about this enough,” Charlotte Storch ’15 said. “We want to try to do something.”
Much of students’ efforts are based on the research done by the Yale College Council for its Report on Mental Health in the fall of 2013. The report addressed the twin issues of campus culture — Yale students’ fixation on excellence — and resources, namely why students are not using the range of resources available to them.
Storch, along with Caroline Posner ’17, Korbin Richards ’15 and Nathan Sitaraman ’15, created a blog, titled Nox et Veritas, for members of the Yale community to anonymously share their experiences with Yale Mental Health & Counseling, withdrawal and readmission policies or simply living with a mental illness at Yale. YCC representative Joseph Cornett ’17 is working to develop a student Mental Health Fellows program, which would help connect students to the network of existing campus resources. Meanwhile, Genevieve Simmons ’17 is collaborating with her residential college master and dean to create mandatory bystander workshops that would teach students how to help those in need.
This work is breathing new life into efforts begun by the Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing, which was formed last spring to consolidate the activities of undergraduate groups working on issues of mental health.
This spike in activity, while notable, does not necessarily indicate a reopening of the mental health dialogue on campus, said YCC University Services Director Madeline Bauer ’17, who sits on the steering committee for the Mental Health Coalition as well as Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling Advisory Committee. Rather, she said, there is always work going on in the background, both on the administrative and student activism levels. She cited the committee that Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway appointed last semester to look into Yale’s withdrawal policies.
When asked about the progress of the committee, Holloway said its report should be released after spring break.
University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews said she has collaborated with various other administrators across the University on improving the mental health climate on campus. While she acknowledged that the conversation surrounding mental health may appear to be quieter at some times than others, she said it has remained a high priority.
“Certainly, recent events, including the tragic loss of a student, have brought new energy to the conversation,” Goff-Crews said in an email. “I welcome this dialogue and am committed to collaborating with students and responding to their feedback and suggestions.”
But Bauer acknowledged that there is often disunity between the administration’s and the students’ agenda, and that the administration can often be perceived by the student body as acting too slowly.
Geoffrey Smith ’15, who with several of his friends authored a pledge asking seniors to boycott the Senior Class Gift until Yale reforms its mental health policies, said the University’s participation in mental health conversations has stopped at promoting existing resources, rather than focusing on policies that can be improved.
Indeed, when asked about mental health, University President Peter Salovey — a psychologist himself — emphasized the importance of clinical care in addressing students’ mental health needs. In addition to helping students deal with everyday factors that induce stress, such as academic pressure and relationship turmoil, he said, Yale should strive to be a leader in the “delivery of outstanding and timely evidence-based care, which would include attention to preventive interventions and shorter-term directive therapies.”
Goff-Crews pointed to a new mental health and wellness website that will be launched at the end of this term, which she said will provide students with a standalone guide to the mental health resources available at Yale. This website, which was designed at the recommendation of the Mental Health Coalition, is one of several student-suggested projects the administration is working on, she added.
Cornett, who has experienced depression himself, said many promises were made last spring, the last time the conversation was prominent, both by the administration and by student activists. And while not all of those promises have materialized yet, Cornett said he believes they are being diligently pursued.
“I believe people made those [promises] genuinely and intend to follow through on them,” he said. “It’s not happening as quickly as anybody would like. But then the good thing about mental health activism is that nobody thinks it’s not a worthy cause. It’s just such a complex issue that it’s not immediately clear how to go about it.”
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd also highlighted steps the administration has taken in the way of prevention. Last summer, she said, administrators added a component to freshman orientation called “Looking Out for One Another” that emphasizes how students can address common mental health challenges. Next year’s orientation will include an element on transitions to college that should also bolster resilience, she added.
Some students agreed that preventative work, alongside institutional change, is important. Citing her idea for bystander training as an example, Simmons said the emphasis on community awareness and sensitivity is what distinguishes this semester’s dialogue from past conversations about mental illness.
“A lot of people [last spring] were writing about [their experiences] in the context of Yale Health and readmission policy and how you are treated when you’re there,” Simmons said. “But [now] there has also been a lot about the step before that — how to address mental health just as students or people, even before a point where you’re going to mental health and being treated either well or poorly by the administration there.”
Cornett agreed, adding that while last year’s debate seemed to function at a structural and policy level, this year’s debate — while still including those elements — is being driven at a deeply personal level.
While the University administration has participated in the conversations surrounding mental health and has acknowledged student demands, such as the YCC report, the policies in question are still a concern, Storch said.
“I think the onus is more on the students to show that this is an issue that we’re really passionate about, and to show that we are really interested in seeing change in these areas,” Sitaraman said. “We hope that is what will provoke a much more far-reaching response from the administration.
But Smith said it is the administration that needs to listen.
“I am optimistic that Yale’s administration can change itself,” he said. “But it has historically been reluctant to do so, and it is our responsibility as students to call it out for that failure.”