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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

We demand sufficient care now

Among students, it is common knowledge that Middlebury’s mental health resources fall short in a myriad of ways. The counseling office has long remained understaffed and overbooked, leading students and even professors to suggest that students would be better off searching in Burlington for services or not bothering at all. Members of the board who have also served as orientation leaders noted that they err on the side of honesty with their new students, expressing that mental health support on campus is inadequate at best and devastatingly lacking at worst.

As a board, this is not the first time we have editorialized on mental health, and we know it will not be the last. Our community has been calling for more robust mental health infrastructure for years, yet the college is still falling short. While college administrators may be well-intentioned, ultimately, mental health resources remain inadequate — and we haven’t seen a significant push to change that reality.

Vermont, as we know, is a rural healthcare desert. The college needs to provide access to every element of healthcare a student could possibly need and more — because we can’t simply step off campus and reach the type of resources available in a metropolitan area. As a result, we have chosen to use this editorial to outline the specific, tangible action items that we know the college has the ability to implement. 

1. Prioritize in-person counseling appointments. 

In a semester when essentially everything is being held in person, it’s troubling to us that counseling sessions are not. If the college feels comfortable cramming thirty students in a Monroe classroom, then they should most definitely be able to sign off on a one-on-one appointment in which a student and counselor could sit more than six feet apart. Counseling sessions that take place over Zoom lack intimacy, make it difficult for providers to read patients’ body language and are contingent upon students finding a private space to attend from. Telehealth is likewise not a tenable option. Students can only get a limited number of free sessions, and appointments are with outsourced practitioners who have no knowledge of what it’s like to be a Middlebury student, and require more “getting to know you” than getting help.

2. Hire (at least one) in-house psychiatrist.

Though students have access to external psychiatric providers at the local Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC), getting an appointment still takes time and self-advocacy. One editor mentioned in our meeting that they were told they would get an appointment ASAP — it’s now been more than a month. Even as we note the difficulty of accessing off-campus resources, we acknowledge that reliance on CSAC and similar entities puts a further strain on resources in the local community, which also serve full-time state residents. The college should be able to provide the infrastructure for everything from mild anxiety to emergency scenarios, including having a psychiatrist on staff. Middlebury must begin laying the foundation for support systems that supply the full spectrum of care. 

3. Abolish mandatory leave policies. 

The last thing a student should have to weigh when considering emergency care is the loss of a year at Middlebury. If a student has to take time off to seek in-patient mental health care, they can be barred from completing the semester at hand, as well as prohibited from returning until the following academic year, at which point the college, not the student, makes the ultimate decision regarding if they are ready for re-enrollment, according to a 2019 op-ed describing this experience. It’s beyond troubling to think about how many Middlebury students — both current and past — have sacrificed their long-term well-being in order to maintain their enrollment status. 

Forcing students to take mandatory leave can also send them into an unstable home situation that could very well exacerbate the problems at hand. Such dilemmas are made even more complicated for international students, who could stand to lose their visas if they are required to depart Middlebury. Furthermore, students are also only guaranteed eight semesters of financial aid, so an unforeseen absence from the college can jeopardize the aid they receive from Middlebury. 

4. Replace short-term crisis care with an approach that centers long-term, sustainable support. 

Middlebury’s services are, in short, not designed to foster long term relationships between students and mental health professionals. The mental health resources are so fraught to deal with — from same-day scheduling to short, 25-minute appointment times — that students tend to only seek out help when things have come to a head. Rather, we should envision a mental health system that promotes preventative, not reactive care, so that students can receive ongoing, consistent support before they reach crisis-levels of need.  

Counseling advertises their services as short-term, and editors spoke about the scarcity of therapists in the area who are accepting new patients, leaving students unsure of how to find long-term, sustained mental health care. The shortfalls inherent in the current systems leave students contemplating their own deservingness; as one editor noted, after dissatisfaction with the college’s counseling options, she was hesitant to seek a local therapist after learning that CSAC has a long waitlist, because she didn’t want to take an appointment from someone who needed it more. The system also favors students who are prepared to self-advocate — students who declare that: no, they cannot meet for just 25 minutes for a same-day appointment, and no, they cannot wait more than a week for a follow-up appointment. The onus should not be all on students. One way to alleviate the pressure of self reporting could be to provide comprehensive training to faculty and deans regarding how to interpret the warning signs of a student who needs mental health support. 

5. Lay the foundation for mental health resources starting at orientation.

Middlebury students, on arrival, are provided with first year counselors, a residence director, their student life dean, their first-year seminar advisor and their Compass mentor. We know who to talk to when we’re having trouble deciding what classes to take, contemplating what major to pursue or having a dispute with our roommate. But when mental health crises arise, students must begin the process of doing their own research to figure out how to get help, and largely rely on each other via word of mouth to find out what offerings are available, leading to inconsistencies in students’ knowledge of what resources exist. This could be alleviated by providing all incoming students with an assigned counselor who they can forge a relationship with (or choose not to!) during their time here.

6. Acknowledge and rectify barriers for marginalized students. 

Students of color living and learning in a predominantly white institution are already likely to experience compounded mental health issues as a result of experiencing imposter syndrome, micro- and macro-aggressions and racial stereotyping, to name just a few things. Many students also hail from backgrounds where mental health is stigmatized, which creates additional barriers when it comes to giving oneself permission to seek help. Approaching these differences of identity and experience from a place of sensitivity and equity necessitates providing students with counselors with a wide variety of identities, including BIPOC and queer-identifying counselors. 

7. Do whatever it takes.

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We get it — convincing dozens of mental health practitioners to move to rural Vermont might not be the easiest sell. But now, more than ever, we’re ready to state that these provisions are not optional, and the college should pay as much as is necessary to fully staff mental health resources. As was asserted in an email sent to the college community last week, our endowment grew half a billion dollars last year. And though we don’t know the details of how these funds are earmarked and restricted, we do know that the college can no longer state that it is in a financially precarious position. The college also has enormous fundraising power outside the endowment, but directing such campaigns toward mental health would mean admitting that resources are currently insufficient. 

For counselors employed now, we can’t imagine that their current working conditions are particularly ideal either. In our experience as students, those working in counseling services are dedicated and supportive individuals who do truly want to help students in whatever way they can. However, they remain constrained by the lack of resources provided to them by the college. 

We won’t pretend that we have all the answers, but we do know that these steps will provide support that students direly need. We hope above all else that the college will listen to us, and take responsibility for the health of students. To put it plainly — student mental health is a matter of life or death. It’s far past time to pull out all the stops.