In January last year, the Yale community mourned the loss of Luchang Wang ’17. Classmates and friends described her as brilliant, selfless and someone who carried an absolute perfection in the way she loved other people. The tragic loss of a compassionate campus presence to deteriorating mental health conditions spurred intense student revolt and subsequent administrative shock.
In the direct aftermath of Wang’s death, University resources regarding student well-being expanded, some members of the senior class boycotted the annual class gift — resulting in a 19 percent decrease in contributions from the prior year -— and the Yale College Council set up a mental health town hall with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin. Students at the town hall aired passionate calls for reform, drawing on their negative experiences with Mental Health & Counseling. It demonstrated a marked divide between administrators’ understanding of MH&C and students’ day-to-day reality. In short, the urgency surrounding administrative change was painfully tangible and dangerously acute.
The months following Wang’s death saw a relatively beneficial synergy between student initiative and administrative response. Some changes took place. First, a new website was created to better streamline mental health resources into a user-friendly student portal. Second, the “equivalent of 2.5 full time therapists” were added to MH&C staff. Third, Dr. Howard Blue, an accomplished Yale psychiatrist, was appointed to the new position of deputy director of MH&C. Fourth, withdrawal policies were revamped so that students on a leave of absence would be notified of reinstatement farther in advance of the next semester.
These reforms deserve some degree of applause, but still fall short of the exceptional standards that Yale should hold when it comes to student mental health. Yale is an institution that is simultaneously mind-opening and mind-burdening. This jarring contradiction between Gothic academic enlightenment and intellectual stress, among a slew of other stressors, takes a toll on the mental well-being of students. As a result, it is only fair that the University maintain extraordinary standards of mental health programming in the United States, especially when many students pay over $60,000 each year to attend class.
What does this mean? It means that glossy new meta-websites that merely redirect students back to defunct webpages are not hallmarks of real change. It means that adding “the equivalent of 2.5 full-time therapists” is a ridiculously small number to champion. It means that new bureaucratic positions are not automatically synonymous with bureaucratic success, in the same way that phony commissions and nominal appointments do not improve federal government performance. Lastly, it means that academically gifted students suffering from severe mental illness still need tofill an academic requirement that can be financially burdensome.
Putting these policy faults aside, however, there are several feasible changes the administration could make to improve mental health on campus.
First, add more counselors to MH&C. A reported 2,500 students participated in MH&C programs last semester, yet MH&C only operates 30 full-time therapists, which equates to one therapist presiding over 80 students. This counselor-to-student ratio is nothing short of preposterous.
Second, MH&C should identify psychiatric problems that are beyond the scope of its resources. This means developing and distributing a list of specialty clinics and institutions outside of Yale Health that treat specific mental health conditions. Examples include the New Haven Psychoanalytic Clinic and the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
Third, incorporate mental health into freshman training during Camp Yale. Yale requires all incoming freshmen to complete CCE programming on sexual assault. Why don’t we have something similar for mental health? Mental health workshops should include points of medical contact in emergencies, a “best practices” sheet highlighting habits for healthy living and peer-to-peer exercises that simulate difficult conversations about a friend’s mental struggle.
Lastly, MH&C needs to heighten publicity. Occasional and inconsistently timed emails from Genecin (usually in response to acute emergencies) do not constitute a stable channel of communication. MH&C needs to clearly put forth a staff member who will serve as an active and receptive liaison to the student population. This person’s contact information would be presented in all freshman workshops, and their sole duty would be to respond and react to student questions, comments and concerns regarding mental health.
Working in tandem, these new policy proposals have the potential to significantly improve Yale’s mental health infrastructure. Yale has proven itself to be a bastion of progressive thinking when it comes to issues such as transgenderism and racial injustice. We can do better when it comes to mental health, too.
Isaac Amend is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .