On Sunday, 14 undergraduates gathered in a classroom on Hillhouse Avenue for the year’s first meeting of the Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing. Their task: facilitate communication among different groups on mental health issues at Yale.
The coalition is the result of a report, commissioned by University President Peter Salovey in the months before his fall 2013 inauguration, on the University’s mental health culture and resources. According to the meeting’s moderators — Olivia Pollak ’16, Eli Feldman ’16 and Mari Kawakatsu ’17, who are members of the coalition’s steering committee — the coalition is currently focused on promoting open and transparent dialogue between students and administrators.
“The coalition’s goals are to facilitate communication and collaboration between different student groups … strengthen the student safety net and liaise with Mental Health & Counseling and Student Health,” Feldman said.
Pollak said the Yale College Council is in large part responsible for students’ recent increased involvement in mental health issues. The YCC compiled the report for Salovey by conducting a schoolwide survey in conjunction with in-depth interviews, Pollak said. A consensus became clear: Fundamental changes needed to be made to Yale’s culture and policies surrounding mental health. That consensus spurred the creation of the coalition.
The heads of the group, formally known as the “steering committee,” attend monthly meetings — started in February 2014 — with representatives from Yale Health, Mental Health & Counseling and the YCC. The coalition also runs meetings exclusively for students.
After a round of brief presentations by the steering committee members, the meeting’s attendees dove into the issues. First on the agenda was a discussion of Yale’s broader campus culture vis-à-vis mental health issues.
“If you could snap your fingers, what would you change about Yale’s mental health culture?” Feldman asked the group.
Several participants made similar complaints concerning Yale’s “culture of perfection.” In a place as demanding and competitive as Yale, students often hide behind a pretense of ease and happiness because they do not want to be labeled as having failed in any sense of the word, participants noted. Many students are unwilling to open up about internal struggles, thereby creating a “hush-hush” attitude that dominates how Yale has historically treated mental health issues.
Secondly, there was a call to address the fact that academic disorders and mental health issues are often inextricably intertwined. Students who suffer from ADD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia or other disorders are prone to develop mental health issues while trying to succeed in Yale’s high-pressure academic environment. Because academic disorders do not fall within the rigid confines of what is deemed to be a mental disorder, students with academic disorders may not be getting the mental health aid they need.
Lastly, the group discussed the need to change the definition of mental health. In particular, Feldman said there is a tendency to express mental disorders in black-and-white terms, instead of acknowledging that they actually lie on a spectrum.
“The dichotomy between people who have a mental illness versus people who are healthy … that’s not a real dichotomy. There are plenty of people who don’t have a diagnosable disorder and could be healthier,” Feldman said.
Many of these same complaints appear in the 2013 report that the YCC published to call on Salovey to take action regarding mental health. Sreeja Kodali ’18, a participant at the meeting, noted that some of those complaints still remain proposals on paper. Kodali added that she believes this is because some of the cultural issues discussed at the meeting cannot be eradicated through policy changes alone. Instead, she suggested, they must be accompanied with active student engagement.
As the meeting drew to a close, committee members discussed upcoming efforts organized by the coalition, including the annual Mental Health and Wellness Weekend. Planned for the spring, the weekend comprises a slate of workshops and speaker series designed to foster constructive conversation about mental health at Yale and raise awareness of student groups working on relevant issues.
Although mental health has been a prominent issue on campus since early last semester, Pollak said that the coalition is struggling with lack of representation from the broader student body at its meetings. Still, Feldman said, there has been substantial progress.
“[The way] that some people [at the meeting] shared their experiences struggling with mental health — this never would have happened three years ago,” Feldman said. “It would have been a big deal, it would have seemed very out there.”