Rachel Siegel

Tensions ran high at Yale-NUS during a town hall on Oct. 4, as President Pericles Lewis responded to student questions about mental health services at the four-year-old college.

At the session — one of several regularly scheduled question-and-answer events held each year at Yale-NUS — Lewis urged students struggling with mental-health issues to reach out to what he described as a “very strong wellness team.”

But as the discussion turned to specifics, Lewis started to hesitate. Asked about the counseling resources at Yale-NUS, he said the college employed one full-time and one part-time counselor for its 700 students, plus additional support from counselors working for the Singapore American Community Action Council. He was corrected by Diversity and Inclusion Manager Sara Amjad who denied that the school employed a full-time counselor at the time.

On Sept. 23, two weeks before the town hall, a wellness staff member named Natalie Games stepped down as Yale-NUS’s only full-time counselor. Games’ sudden departure arrived at a turbulent time for the Dean of Students Office, as staff members turned over and administrators merged the health, athletics and wellness departments. Then, on Sept. 29, a Yale-NUS senior died suddenly, sending shockwaves through the community and provoking conversations about mental health on campus.

In interviews with the Yale-NUS student newspaper The Octant, roughly a dozen students expressed dissatisfaction with changes to the mental health services at Yale-NUS — which range from staffing adjustments to a physical transformation of the Wellness offices — and how they were communicated, saying the college’s resources are diminished and those that remain are significantly less accessible.

While the Yale-NUS Dean of Students  Office declined to comment on the reasons for Games’s sudden departure, multiple  sources close to Games told The Octant that she was given no choice in the matter .

A Yale-NUS staff member, who asked to remain anonymous , told The Octant that the office denied Games’s request for increased funding for her wellness programming. When Games raised concerns with senior administrators , “the [Dean of Students Office] offered her two options: resign, or be fired,” the staff member said.

Games’s departure followed the exit of two part-time counselors at the start of the semester, leaving the college with only one part-time counselor.  To compensate for the understaffing, the college brought in Laura Butler, a temporary counselor from the Singapore American Community Action Council, who will remain at Yale-NUS until the end of the fall semester.

A new full-time counselor started at Yale-NUS on Oct. 17.

Reaction to Staffing Changes

Dean of Students Christopher Bridges told The Octant that with the new hires, Yale-NUS now has enough counselors to fulfill student demand.

Bridges added that in a recent review of Wellness services, his office found that most students facing mental health emergencies are able to schedule appointments for the same day.  The longest waiting time for a non-crisis situation is about a week if a student asks to meet with a specific counselor, he added.

Still, Yale-NUS students interviewed remain skeptical that mental health services at their school will satisfy student demand, with some calling the personnel changes a frustrating disruption to the college’s wellness support.

Preliminary results from a Yale-NUS Student Government survey, which was distributed to the student body a week after the town hall and taken by nearly 400 Yale-NUS students, indicate that the average waiting time for respondents is three to four business days. However, according to those who answered mental health specific questions, more than 20 percent of respondents said they had to wait more than a week between booking an appointment and seeing a counselor. 

Additionally, students interviewed expressed concerns that the changes to the counseling department have made it more difficult to establish stable relationships with counselors. Yonatan Gazit YNUS ’18 said the high turnover of counselors is especially harmful for students with long-term issues that require continuous treatment.

“A psychologist is not someone you can just replace,” Gazit said. “It’s kind of a much more subtle, fluffy, ingrained member of the community.”

The staffing changes have also negatively affected collaboration between the wellness center and other campus groups, according to Amjad.

In an interview with The Octant, Amjad said she has not had a chance to think logistically about collaboration programs over the past few weeks.

“I haven’t had a chance to think about specific programmes and when to schedule them,” said Amjad, citing recent changes in staffing.

Jolanda Nava YNUS ’17 — a member of P.S. We Care, a Yale-NUS peer counseling program — said the personnel changes have hindered efforts to continue past collaborations.

Wong Zhiying YNUS ’19 said she has noticed fewer wellness events and initiatives this semester compared to past years.

“Last semester there [would] be stuff like de-stress and time management and a lot more workshops at the wellness center… but this semester, I don’t see that happening as much,” Zhiying said.

DSO Restructuring

According to Yale-NUS Associate Director of Student Life Peter Low, combining the health, athletics and wellness departments with the Dean of Students Office was intended to promote the “holistic development of students.” He added that the three departments had previously been isolated from one another.

In addition to the new counselors, the wellness center recently added an administrative assistant, with whom students can schedule counseling appointments by email. Lewis said incorporating an administrative assistant has streamlined services to the extent that two counselors and one part-time counselor can do the work of three full-time counselors.

The restructuring of the Dean of Students Office also brought physical rearrangements. The part-time wellness counselor’s office was moved to a vacant room in a different building due to a lack of space in the wellness center.

According to Adam Lau YNUS ’19, the rearrangement has created the impression that the wellness team occupies “a temporary space,” and confused students about where they should go to see a counselor.

Asked if there are any plans to move the office back, Low said the relocation was not a permanent arrangement.

Additionally, the office rearrangement affected P.S. We Care, which used to share space with the Wellness Center. At the start of the semester, the group was moved into a separate conference room, before being transferred back to its original space.

Lau, a member of P.S. We Care, said the group had previously worked hard to publicize its location, and the temporary rearrangement has made it difficult for people to find them. He added that organizations such as P.S. We Care need spaces in which people “feel comfortable enough to share about anything they want.”

“Having constant changes of space does not help that,” he said.

Moreover, several students interviewed said they were unhappy with how these changes were communicated to the Yale-NUS community.

“Some people didn’t even know that [Games]  existed, much less that she left,” Xiao Ting Teo YNUS ’18 said after the town hall.

Low told The Octant that students should actively seek out information before complaining about communication. He said the Dean of Students Office shared information about the availability of counselors on its website and through other channels.

It took until mid-October, more than three weeks after her departure, for Games’s name to be removed from the Yale-NUS staff directory. Fliers on display in the Wellness Center still list the names of the two recently departed part-time counselors as resources available to students.

Moving Forward

At Yale, where debates over mental health polarized campus two years ago following the suicide of an undergraduate, the recent changes at Yale-NUS have gone largely unnoticed. All 10 Yale College students interviewed said they have not followed the recent developments at Yale’s partner institution in Singapore.

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said that although he meets with Lewis a few times each semester, he does not recall ever discussing mental health policies with the Yale-NUS president.

University President Peter Salovey enumerated the mental health resources available to students, citing on-campus counselors, additional counseling and psychological services at the National University of Singapore and psychiatric services at the National University Hospital.

“Like Yale in New Haven, Yale-NUS College focuses significant resources on supporting the mental and emotional well-being of its students,” Salovey said.

Gazit said the first time he felt his voice was heard was at the town hall, which he described as the first open channel of communication between the Yale-NUS administration and students about mental health services.

In response to the concerns raised by students at the town hall, the Yale-NUS Student Government, Bridges and the Wellness Center  organized an Oct. 19 mental health listening session, where students voiced worries about resources provided at Yale-NUS. Currently, the Dean of Students Office and the student government are working together to act on feedback gleaned from the listening session. Bridges told The Octant that he hopes to hold a session on topics concerning student life each month.

Evan Ma YNUS ’18, who attended the session, said he found it useful and felt that administrators in attendance seemed to acknowledge his concerns.

Ma added that in the future, the administration should focus on changing the stressful culture of Yale-NUS, creating stability in the wellness department and improving communication with students.

Some students and Dean’s Fellows — who serve as student advisors on campus — have just recently established a mental health task force at Yale-NUS. In the coming weeks, the group will hold a discussion between students and faculty , as well as a series of testimonials aimed at reducing stigma surrounding mental health.

According to Dean’s Fellow and Yale College Graduate Michelle Soto ’16,  improving wellness at Yale-NUS should be a collaborative effort involving students, faculty and administrators.

But Tiffany Sin YNUS ’17 said the Wellness Center should not be the only place at Yale-NUS where mental health is taken seriously.

“All parts of the school [should be] more aware of the word ‘wellness’ and not actually like, ‘Oh it’s that room next to the athletics people,’” she said. “Professors, [administration], students [need] to realize that our school is maybe not this buzzing, lively place of the best and brightest students that we like to pretend that it is.”

The Yale-NUS Student Government will release a report on mental health and wellness on Nov. 1 and host a dialogue on the subject on Nov. 4.

The News produced this article in collaboration with the Octant, which published it online Friday afternoon.