After two student deaths during fall semester and the announcement of a $4.9 million unrestricted gift put towards mental health resources, leaders of The Campus sat down with members of health services to discuss past policies and plans going forward.
While the gift was not in direct response to the deaths on campus last semester, the decision to designate the funds to mental health programs came amidst student calls for improvements in such resources. Prior to the announcement of the donation, the college had not officially stated whether mental health services would receive any funding from its “For Every Future” campaign.
Health Services does not tend to see spikes in the utilization of mental health resources after challenging events, and this remained true this past fall semester, according to Barbara McCall, associate vice president for student health and well-being. There was no noticeable difference in demand for counseling in the three weeks before the two student deaths on campus compared to the three weeks following those incidents.
McCall emphasized that the need for diversified mental health support is important, especially amidst difficult circumstances on campus.
“What people are often looking for is connection, talking to peers, so that’s the time where we really reinvest in making sure our educators know what to do, Residential Life staff know what to do and make sure that we can be out and about on campus in ways that aren’t just one-on-one,” McCall said.
Director of Counseling Tammy Austin added that Counseling Services were able to meet all appointment requests throughout the semester as a result of their adaptable approach to counseling.
Middlebury’s counseling model is a blend of two models. One of the models, ‘Flexible Care,’ McCall said, focuses on near-immediate access, meaning same day or next day appointments.
Flexible care is blended with the ‘Stepped Care’ model.
“Stepped Care is a system of delivering and monitoring mental health treatment so that the most effective, yet least resource intensive treatment, is delivered first, only ‘stepping up’ to intensive / specialist services as required and depending on the level of patient distress or need,” according to the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health.
McCall emphasized that one-on-one counseling is not and should not be the only form of mental health care available to students. “One-on-one counseling is awesome and it’s great for a lot of people, but it’s not for everyone, so that’s not the only thing we do,” McCall said. “There’s a ton of different entry points for mental health services.”
She highlighted other resources that are available to students, including small group discussions, workshop series, health educator programs, nurse practitioner visits and integrated care specialist visits.
McCall explained the impact this gift will have on the scope of services the Center for Health and Wellness is able to provide. “In the past, we’ve said we can help with person power and planning power, but sometimes we’ve been limited in terms of the actual funding to get something off the ground,” McCall said. “Now we have person power and we have financial power to help.”
The funding will be directed to four main areas, all intended to diversify mental health support offerings. The goals of these different areas include the addition of a licensed counselor position, stipends for the graduate intern program, increased identity-based work, and mental health promotion and prevention programming.
McCall emphasized the college’s efforts to change its hiring practices in an effort to draw more diverse candidates to apply to work at Middlebury, which extends to the Center for Health and Wellness’ search for an additional licensed counselor. Renee Wells, assistant vice president of education for equity and inclusion, has led trainings for Health and Wellness on hiring best practices.
The center aims to diversify its applicant pool in terms of candidates’ experience, educational preparation, identity, socioeconomic background and more. “We really are trying to expand kind of where we’re advertising, really looking at all elements of diversity, not just one particular identity,” Austin said.
One way the hiring process aims to be more inclusive is by having first-round interviews on Zoom, rather than requiring candidates to come in person to Vermont to interview.
“Hopefully we’re not only getting a New England reach, but really trying to get a national reach as well,” Austin said.
Graduate interns are given an introduction to what counseling on a college campus looks like and after they complete training, they provide support and services for students on campus. While graduate interns in the Counseling department have been unpaid thus far, the gift will allow for the introduction of stipends for these positions.
“This is a really big move that we’re going to be able to make toward equity and toward recognition of the work that our graduate students do to contribute on a daily basis to our community,” McCall said.
She also hopes the stipends will function as an incentive for people to get involved in college health.
“We know that there’s a healthcare worker shortage and Vermont has really been struggling with that,” McCall added. “Our hope is that we can help people not only fall in love with college health and fall in love with the work that we do… but maybe also fall in love with Vermont while they’re here for graduate school and see a path to stay.”
Health and Wellness plans to host retreats, visiting counselors and workshop series that focus on identity-based work. McCall said that small-group work has been successful in the past, providing a distinct way for students to discuss mental health. She noted that discussing these topics with other students who reflect one’s own identity is helpful and that students have shared positive feedback about such past programs.
Increased mental health promotion and prevention will include efforts to help students develop preventative skills.
“Our team of health educators does a lot around helping people build proactive skills. Protective factors like resiliency, help-seeking self-advocacy,” McCall said.
Most colleges, including Middlebury, have taken an integrated, collaborative approach to healthcare since the 1980s, according to McCall. This method means that various health service offices collaborate to care for students instead of separating things like mental and physical healthcare.
“It's now kind of the expectation that everyone is working together,” McCall said. “We try to provide lots of care options that have lots of breadth, like a lot of different services and depth that we can manage a lot of different things.”
Director of Integrated Care Sarah Binshadler described that the healthcare offered by a college is dependent on the environment of the school, including the political climate of the state in which it is located and the size of the school. Because Middlebury is in a rural place, healthcare on campus aims to be more comprehensive since it is difficult for students who don’t have a car to go off campus and see specialists, Binshadler explained.
In addition to providing care for students, Director of Health Services Alison Finch discussed the importance of caring for employees who are equally a part of the college community.
“The best way of taking care of students for me is to ensure that we’re really taking care of our staff so that they’re able to be here for students,” Finch said.
Finch noted the Employee Assistance Program — which provides counseling and referrals on “quality-of-life issues” for employees and their families, according to the Middlebury Handbook — as a resource she is glad the college has as a means of supporting staff members.
“I do think that recognizing the importance of self-care and the mental well-being of the folks who are providing care is really critical for continuing to provide great care for students,” she said.
All of the Health and Wellness members who spoke with The Campus noted the importance of student feedback in their work. Students can give feedback through TimelyCare, Middlebury’s telehealth platform, in post-appointment surveys. The center takes the data from those surveys and uses it to make decisions about changes to their services.
Health and Wellness also sent out Healthy Minds surveys in 2018 and 2022 asking about students’ mental health. In addition, they periodically look at data from The Campus’ annual Zeitgeist survey, receive feedback from SGA committees and small group workshops, and get direct feedback provided by students. Last year’s Zeitgeist 5.0 results showed that 39% of respondents had used counseling services at Middlebury, while 34% were very or somewhat satisfied with Counseling Services.
In 2024, Health and Wellness looks to rebuild and expand its channels for receiving student feedback. Binshadler emphasized the staff’s eagerness to implement new programs and offer services students want.
“We’re just people who’ve been doing this kind of work for a while. We have ideas and we’re open and curious for new ideas,” she said.
Susanna Schatz ‘24 (she/her) is the Senior News Editor.
She previously served as Local Editor, Staff Writer, and Visuals Artist for The Campus. She is an English major and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies minor.
Susanna is the social media and marketing intern for a small business started by Midd Alums, Treeline Terrains. In her free time you’ll find her taking in the Vermont outdoors hiking, swimming, skiing, reading in an Adirondack chair, or painting the scenery.