Roodnitsky: The College’s ratio of students to mental health providers is abysmal and it shows

Filed in Health by on July 22, 2022 0 Comments

The 10-week term structure is no excuse for Dartmouth. Students need access to long-term mental health care on campus.

by Anna Roodnitsky | 7/22/22 4:05am


Many of us have heard of the “duck syndrome” at Dartmouth: It’s week five, midterms are crashing into you, stress from extracurriculars has piled up, looming deadlines approach, the fear of finding that internship for your next off term peaks and quite frankly , you sleep more in Baker-Berry Library than in your sleep. And yet, you must appear calm above the surface of the water, a graceful duck making its way smoothly around the pond. If someone were to peek underneath, however, they would see webbed feet frantically paddling away. That’s how much energy the duck must exert to keep from drowning. Nobody would know from its appearance that the duck is just barely remaining afloat.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the “duck syndrome” is an all-too-common experience for both Dartmouth students and college students nationwide. According to the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, 73% of college students experience some sort of mental health crisis during college. I have found that some Dartmouth students have very little experience with seeking treatment for issues like anxiety and depression. High school was a time that kept us so busy that many never considered seeking medical care for mental health. I would know — as someone who took a medical withdrawal my freshman fall due to chronic depression, I found myself not only forced to pay attention to an aspect of my health I’d been ignoring for years, but also shocked at the lack of infrastructure for mental health services at an Ivy League institution. Even after the wake-up call of a year of tragedy for the Class of 2024, it became clear that there was no way that the College could provide me with the medical care I needed to improve my mental health. This institutional failure meant I had to make the extremely difficult choice of taking a withdrawal during my very first term.

After two terms off, I came back to campus for spring 2022 to begin my freshman year. During my six months recovering at home, I was lucky enough to have providers that were invested in my full recovery, supporting me every step along the way. Coming back with a new perspective on mental health, it deeply saddens me to think that the care system here at Dartmouth seems to be analogous to slapping a Band-Aid on a broken limb. I found that many of my friends on campus shared this feeling. When requesting counseling, students have to go through a process called “triage” — essentially, a scheduled phone interview with a counselor to discuss why you need them and what sort of help you’d like to seek. My first experience with one of these triage appointments was back in fall 2021, and it can be summarized as me explaining to the counselor that I woke up every day numb and hopeless only for her to tell me to “try journaling about your feelings!”

To serve the student body population of approximately 4,000 undergraduate students, the College currently has only seven counselors on staff. That means for every 571 students on campus, there is one counselor. Additionally, the College has two psychiatrists, but meeting with one of them requires a lengthy referral process, and the first available appointment could be a month out. These ratios of providers to students are absolutely abysmal, and they inevitably result in overworked staff. It’s clear that many students are dissatisfied. The Dartmouth’s senior survey of the most recent graduating class, the Class of 2022, shows that an overwhelming “91% of seniors reported being either somewhat or extremely dissatisfied” with the College’s allocation of resources to support the mental health of its students. The system is set up so that struggling students have to navigate an overwhelming maze just to secure one quality in-person appointment with one of the counselors. Many simply give up.

What’s worse is that Dartmouth seems to believe that after every term students hit the reset button on their mental health needs. If a student does manage to secure a few appointments during a term, the next term they essentially have to start the entire process over. On the Dartmouth Health Services website, the College bluntly explains that “in order to meet significant student demand and use its resources most effectively, the Counseling Center utilizes a short-term therapy model.” There’s pressure placed on the student that they are expected to expedite their treatment to a timeframe of less than a 10-week term.

The website also explains that “if longer term counseling is needed, the counselor will help a student find a referral to a therapist in the community.” Tell me, what is the point of counseling and therapy services on campus if, at the end of the day, most students will just be told to seek help elsewhere? Now the student has to worry about insurance, arranging new appointments and going through another exhaustive process, all on top of their existing struggles. To me, there’s no point in even trying to establish a relationship with a counselor on campus if they’re just going to kick me out by next term because of the “significant student demand.” It’s a process that seems designed solely to outsource liability when crisis strikes, not to prevent crises from happening in the first place.

Dear Dartmouth, it’s clear. We’re struggling. A lot. We desperately need help. Though College President Phil Hanlon has launched a partnership with the JED Foundation — a nonprofit focused on bettering students’ mental health and preventing suicide — we are still not near the level of intervention we need. Instead of conducting more surveys that point out the obvious — that many students are suffering — we need an adequate system of professionals to serve as a powerful support system. So Dartmouth, please stop buying face masks and coloring books for “de-stress” events hosted by house communities. The College has the power to dissolve the stigmas regarding mental health treatment by adequately taking responsibility for students’ needs, and it should act on that power.

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