Allow me to speak on behalf of most, if not all, of the student body when I say that we are experiencing extreme physical and mental fatigue this semester. Students are truly drained and frustrated with the current state of campus life and with the administration’s lack of attention and urgency towards this issue.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on the mental health app Unmasked reflecting the anxiety and stress I am facing this semester. I expressed worry for myself and my friends who have been sharing their struggles with me, and I asked what this community can do to improve the situation. I received a good number of responses from students who shared my concerns and explained their own opinions on the matter. A couple of students proposed writing an op-ed for the Record as a way of documenting our stories and reaching the administration, so I figured I would give it a shot.
It is a common belief that physical and mental health services on campus are not an institutional priority and should be better equipped. It seems to me that they are underfunded and that the administration doesn’t seem adequately prepared for the influx of students seeking health services this year. Students are still trying to adjust to the in-person world amid the pandemic, and the administration should prioritize providing these services to maintain a healthy and productive campus environment. Truly, there wasn’t a smooth transition from last year’s virtual world, which included more Pass/Fail options and other flexible accommodations, to the current in-person one, whose structure is very similar to that before the pandemic. This assumption that students can rapidly readjust to an intensive, pre-pandemic schedule is an expectation for which many of us do not feel ready.
Based on my conversations with fellow students, we are experiencing higher than normal stress and anxiety levels, among other mental health challenges. There also seems to be a rise in physical sickness amongst students at this time of year. Physical sickness only exacerbates the mental distress that students are experiencing, which has resulted in a very toxic environment in which students are frustrated, demotivated, fatigued, and overworked.
For one, it is extremely difficult to get appointments with Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS). Students have been talking about how the waitlist for IWS, particularly the psychiatrist, is absurdly long, sometimes extending to Winter Study. Other friends of mine expressed the challenges they faced trying to get appointments with therapists; in many cases, they were not able to find any. I personally had to reach out to IWS early — before classes even started — to get on a biweekly plan with a therapist. Essentially, even though we do have more therapists than peer schools, we still don’t have enough!
From my experience and other students’ experiences with the Health Center, it seems as if the Health Center is also not equipped to fully address our physical needs. I was sick for more than two weeks and for more than a week I wasn’t able to go to any of my classes. To be honest, reaching out to health services wasn’t very helpful. I couldn’t get an appointment at the time that I needed despite the urgency of my condition, and when I finally got one, the staff just told me to self-quarantine and didn’t offer me any solutions to my symptoms. I’ve had friends recall to me similar experiences in which their physical needs weren’t met by the Health Center’s resources. They told me they weren’t given the medications they needed or weren’t referred to the right professionals. Given that physical support is deeply intertwined with mental health, the lack of such support can have significantly negative impacts on our overall well-being.
I am not denying that the administration is trying to help students, but there is definitely much more they are capable of doing. For example, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom’s Nov. 1 email on IWS indicated that the administration is aware of this issue and is working on resolving it. The solutions mentioned in the email are indeed necessary and helpful, but they are not urgent or immediate enough. On Unmasked and in my conversations with fellow students, people have suggested solutions that would improve the campus situation immediately, including reducing workload, getting a mental health day or two, and/or having the option to withdraw from a fourth class without penalty, similar to last year.
The administration must realize that solutions don’t solely include IWS — they’re also embedded in the academic system, which has been quite difficult to navigate this year. Dean Sandstrom also mentioned Talkspace as an alternative. I have personally tried using Talkspace, and I was unable to find a therapist that was the right match for me. Friends of mine have had similar negative experiences or found it difficult to form a connection with a therapist virtually.
Academically, some professors aren’t as understanding or cooperative as one might hope, and if that is due to insufficient information about students’ struggles, then this is another issue revealing the lack of communication between students, faculty, and the administration. Regardless, because the College is an academically intense environment, professors can be the most helpful when it comes to improving students’ experiences, and unfortunately a number of professors choose not to. A friend of mine mentioned that they recently emailed their professor asking for a one-day extension for a written assignment because they were going through a difficult time. They told me that they shared their needs clearly and were very honest and vulnerable, but unfortunately the professor wasn’t understanding and said that there will be a penalty for every day the paper is late. Simple actions like that automatically make students’ experiences more difficult. Professors have the power to improve students’ experiences, so I don’t see why some of them choose not to.
We need a campus-wide effort aimed at improving mental health culture, and while there are already some activities such as Stressbusters, I think most of us can agree that they aren’t sufficient. Therefore, I believe that establishing a new committee or student organization to bridge the gap between administration, faculty, and students is necessary. Its role could include checking in on students on a monthly basis. For example, it could send forms or surveys to the student body and then report the results to the administration. It could potentially be an extension of Peer Health, and could work on connecting students together outside of IWS — something similar to Unmasked. Even though Unmasked is far from enough to improve this situation, from what I’ve seen so far, it can be quite helpful and effective in connecting students together, for people tend to be more comfortable sharing vulnerable experiences due to its anonymity.
As a community, we must be more understanding and empathetic towards one another. We are all struggling, both individually and collectively. Williams is a very challenging environment and even though I feel a great sense of community and support from others, I also see a lot of room for improvement. The administration must focus its attention and put in significant effort to improve health services on campus as soon as possible.
Gina Al-Karablieh ’22 is an art history & studio major and French minor from Ramallah, Palestine.