Petitioning for change: The College’s obligation to prioritize student health

October 19, 2016 by The Williams Record Editorial Board

A recent petition addressed to “Williams Administration” called on the College to sell several slabs of the new library quad marble to pay the salary of another therapist at the Health Center for one year. The tongue-in-cheek petition calls attention to a real problem: the lack of mental health counseling on campus. The current staff are too few in number and not diverse enough to meet students’ needs for therapy.

The marble slabs are a convenient symbol that makes the College’s misallocation of its substantial resources manifest. Students frustrated by insufficient financial aid or long waits for their therapy may walk past the jumbled classicism and wonder whether the College’s ever-growing endowment supports campus beautification projects at the expense of student wellbeing. Of course, a beautiful campus attracts prospective students and deep-pocketed alumni. However, the administration should not forget that its most proximate obligation is to current students. These, moreover, are the alumni of the future; the happier students are during their time at the College, the more likely they may be to donate to their alma mater later in life.

College-aged adults have been shown to be the group most vulnerable to mental illness, as symptoms are most likely to develop during this age range. On top of this, a demanding institution such as Williams is fertile ground for mental health issues. Early treatment of these problems in college can help to improve long-term health far beyond students’ time at the College. Given the pervasiveness of mental health issues among its students, the College should have a large enough qualified staff to allow all students in need of therapy to schedule regular or occasional sessions.

Currently, however, the Health Center employs only eight therapists, three of whom are merely part-time, short-term fellows. Students at the trustee forum Saturday said they could only get a half hour appointment every two weeks, and the creator of the petition said it took her two weeks to get an appointment. The Health Center may refer students to group therapy when individual sessions are not available, but being with a group of peers is often makes it uncomfortable to discuss personal matters. There is also no in-person therapy available on weekends, though a counselor is on call, making scheduling even more difficult. Furthermore, access to psych services over the summer is limited exclusively to students who have a prior relationship with a counselor. Clearly, eight therapists are not nearly enough to meet the demand for mental health counseling on campus.

Maintaining therapy throughout one’s time at the College can be difficult as well. The three fellows are only at the College for two years each. After fellows leave, their patients must find new counselors and build new relationships with them. Given the isolation of Williamstown, finding a therapist off-campus is both difficult and expensive. It is the College’s responsibility to allocate funds to ensure that the Health Center has enough therapists so that all students who want scheduled or on-demand therapy can receive it.

Newly-hired Health Center therapists should include people of color and therapists who identify as LGBTQ, insofar as this is possible when hiring. Currently, there are only three people of color on psych services staff, two of whom are fellows. Diversity in therapists is valuable not just as an end in itself, but also as a means to make therapy more accessible and effective for many students. This will help ensure the wellbeing of all students, some of whom may hesitate to seek help when they feel that certain therapists cannot understand their experiences.

There are, however, other avenues available for students seeking help. Call-In Walk-In (CIWI) at Peer Health provides a valuable source of counseling for students. For the time being, when therapists are overbooked, the Health Center should inform students asking for appointments that other resources, like CIWI, are available on campus, rather than just point them to group therapy. The administration should also be more active in promoting alternative services. This should only be a temporary solution, however, and the College needs to permanently expand its psych services program. When the College can afford to sprinkle its campus with expensive stones, it can afford to allocate money to the issues that matter most to its students.

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