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This special feature takes an in-depth look at the disconnect between College efforts to address mental health and student perception of the adequacy of those services, as well as the broader campus climate surrounding them.

Robyn Newcomb
Features Editor

“How do we reach you?” asked Wellness Center Director Ray Tucker, speaking to the continuous chasm between College efforts to improve mental health services and student experiences with those services. The Voice interviewed Tucker and several students to better understand the sources of that disconnect.

There are three tiers of mental health services: emergency, counseling and outreach. The most urgent tier — emergency services — is perhaps the one that influences students’ opinions the most. Although the school has policies in place for handling emergency services, any breach of that policy can result in an immense distrust of mental health services on the part of both the students involved and others who hear about it.

Alina Karapandzich ’18 recounted an incident in which one of her friends approached the Wellness Center saying that she was suicidal. At the time, the friend feared she would not recieve proper care from the Wellness Center because of “horror stories” she had heard from other students who had been forced to seek care off campus. The friend ultimately felt like she was neglected in a critical moment.

Responding to this anecdote, Tucker expressed a desire to investigate if and why such a situation occurred. “I would like to apologize on behalf of all of Wellness if a student came here and did not feel a sense of care,” said Tucker. He stressed that the Wellness Center’s policy is to treat any student with suicidal ideation immediately.

Still, Karapandzich felt that a large portion of the need for growth is in proper handling of these crisis situations, as the cost of one mistake can be as high as a student’s life. Amineh AlBashaireh ’18 agreed, adding, “I just don’t think they have any idea what to do with manic students.”

“I have bipolar disorder,” AlBashaireh explained, “and I have been tackled by the same security guard on two separate occasions during episodes of crisis. I needed medical attention, I needed to be supported and I was tackled.”

Director of Security and Protective Services (SPS) Steven Glick declined to comment on the incident, but he told the Voice that “all our SPS officers receive Crisis Intervention Training and their priority in any such incident is to ensure the safety and well-being of both the individual and the community.” A police report obtained from the Wooster Police Department does confirm that AlBashaireh was forcibly held to the ground by an SPS officer in one of the instances described.

“This is obviously an extreme situation, but I just think we need to do better for students in crisis,” said AlBashaireh, describing herself as “very traumatized” by the incident.

Tucker affirmed emphatically that the official policy for emergency services ensures that any student experiencing a crisis — specifically assault, acute grief or suicidal ideation — will be able to meet with an on-call counselor, regardless of whether the Wellness Center is open or the waitlist is full.

“I want students to know that if you are having a crisis, and you walk through that front door — I can’t tell anybody to wait if they’re having a panic attack, if they’re having suicidal ideation,” Tucker said. “You may be waiting inside this building, but we will not turn you away.”

Tucker elaborated that Wellness has been taking strides to address mental health crises by implementing both a notification system to all Wellness Center staff for when a crisis concerning a student comes into the building and a suicide assessment during all doctor’s appointments. “Last year, we got 33 referrals through medical appointments,” he said. “The data says that if someone is in a critical incident or feeling suicidal, they will most likely go to their doctor before they would come to a counselor.”

However, simply working from the top down may not be the right approach. “We’re working backwards in a way,” said AlBashaireh. “We could avoid people being in emergency situations if we had the support for students to begin with.”

AlBashaireh explained that the major obstacle in the way of that support is the waitlist to receive a counseling appointment, and all four students the Voice interviewed identified this as a critical issue.

Karapan`dzich described an experience of calling to request an appointment early in the morning on the first day of the semester and being told that the waitlist was already full. No appointments were available, Karapandzich said, for three more weeks. “That was after calling on the first day of the semester,” said Karapandzich.

Karapandzich added that when students can’t get access to counseling in college, the burden of helping them work through their mental health often falls on their friends instead. “We can’t have that burden,” she said. “And we don’t have the professionality to deal correctly with that burden.”

AlBashaireh added that while she supports the idea of hiring an additional counselor, she doesn’t feel that this would necessarily be enough, as she thinks the waitlist would be longer than it is currently if counseling services were better advertised and more trusted by the students.

When asked if he felt student frustration stemmed from a lack of resources or from students not knowing what the available resources are, Tucker responded, “Both. Do the math. You’ve got three people. You’ve got 2,000 potential clients. There’s no way to manage,” he said. “When you’re having a crisis on Tuesday, you need to be seen on Tuesday or Wednesday. You don’t want to be told that it’s going to be a week and a half or longer before you can actually make contact.” Tucker added that, while students in previous years were able to have an appointment every week, it was changed to every other week in order to open up space.

However, Tucker expressed that he felt Wellness is doing better at sending out resources and information to those who are waiting for an appointment, and he praised the counselors for the work they do to see as many students as possible, saying that many stay late after work and come in for crises during the night. Tucker felt that students should see outreach programs like Let’s Talk or Progress on the Path as viable supplements to individual mental health care, noting that outreach programs are typically under-attended. Tucker also confirmed that interviews are currently ongoing to hire a fourth counselor to better meet students’ needs.

With the interviewing of the fourth counselor in mind, the Voice asked Tucker if increased diversity in the counseling staff was among the interviewers’ priorities.

“We are thinking about it,” he answered, but stressed the difficulty of striving for diversity in four counseling staff (four and a half, Tucker described, as he also serves as a counselor in emergencies) that matches the diversity of 2,000 students. “There’s no way we can have a counselor to cover every single identity.” Tucker expressed his perspective that if a counselor is well-trained and doing their job well, their demographics shouldn’t affect how they handle a student’s counseling.

“Yes, there’s certain people whose story I can relate to because their story is close to mine and I can understand the dynamics of what they’re going through a little bit better, but it shouldn’t change the way I’m applying my process to work with that individual,” said Tucker. AlBashaireh expressed understanding that the applicant pool for counselors of marginalized identities may be slim but stressed how beneficial a person of color (PoC) or queer counselor would be to students whose experiences with mental health intersect with and are rendered distinct by their racial, gender and sexual identities.

“Through engaging in conversations with both queer [students] and students of color, I know that a lot of them hope that the Wellness Center can gain therapists that can be of their assistance,” said Hutson. “As a queer person of color, I would feel much more comfortable conversing with a therapist [who] has an understanding of issues that queer and/or people of color face,” said Sharah Hutson ’20.

Karapandzich noted that the cost of counseling sessions after the first five is an issue to be addressed as well, saying that the limited number of free sessions can be a strain for low-income students who need regular counseling. “If you need sustained counseling and know going in that you only have so many sessions,” Karapandzich said, “you may not want to go in at all.”

A common theme surrounding these issues is confusion regarding what services are offered and how to find information about them. “I believe that y’all get a dash-through in orientation, and then it’s set, go. And it’s like, whatever you know, whatever you picked up at A.R.C.H., you better remember that, because there’s no repeated messages in that way,” said Tucker.

However, Tucker stressed that he feels Wellness is doing as much as possible to advertise their resources by sending campus-wide emails, putting up posters across campus with information about mental health outreach programs and listing mental health services and resources on the website. “But like you said, where’s the disconnect?” he asked. “I don’t see people going to look at those resources.”

Students have found frustration in the seeming lack of accessibility to information about mental health services. According to Karapandzich, part of the problem lies in making it the students’ responsibility to seek out information about mental health services instead of giving it to them directly.

“I didn’t know until very recently that deans could be a resource to students,” said Arielle Welch ’18. “Students should know that.” AlBashaireh added that while the website lists several external resources, it does not offer any information about them, noting specifically that the local crisis hotline should be advertised as a resource.

“We need to remember that being seen as vulnerable and needing to seek help can be a trigger for anxiety as well,” said Karapandzich. She added that it is “completely inappropriate” to put students in the position of answering such phone calls at the Wellness Center.

Multiple students expressed that doing a better job of educating the entire campus about mental illnesses and mental health could be extremely beneficial to the students at Wooster who do struggle with mental health. Karapandzich stated that we should be doing more to educate faculty, staff and students about mental illness, hoping that the competency training agreed to as a result of the Galpin Call-in will cover mental health as well. AlBashaireh said that SPS specifically should receive more and better training about what to do when a student is in crisis.

While Tucker said that he’s proud of the work Wooster does to coordinate between Wellness and other departments on campus, AlBashaireh felt that more should be done to coordinate between deans, Wellness and Security specifically. AlBashaireh said that she had preemptively arranged a crisis plan with the Dean of Students Office that was not followed during a crisis situation. “I had a crisis plan, and because they didn’t follow it, I ended up in the hospital, missing two weeks of school … my plan said don’t contact Security, don’t contact the police,” she said. AlBashaireh also described a mass email being sent to students by Dean of Students Scott Brown containing details of her crisis that she found to be inappropriate and not conducive to her recovery. Brown declined to comment on this incident.

AlBashaireh felt, too, that the role of police in any situation involving a student’s mental health should be both clarified and minimized, being used only as an absolute last resort. “I’m a QPoC [queer person of color]; I’m very afraid of the police,” she said. “When you’re already in a very difficult mental place, that’s the last person you want to encounter.”

The most significant divide between student opinion and the perspective expressed by Tucker, though, was regarding the level of stigma surrounding mental health. “There’s people who know about [services] and people who don’t. For the people who know about it, I don’t think there’s any stigma,” Tucker said.

However, students feel differently, as every student interviewed described an active stigma toward mental illness at Wooster. AlBashaireh detailed being judged, ostracized and gossiped about upon returning from the hospital. “Like, I was in a psych ward, do you think I want to be there? People act like it’s a choice or something; people were so rude. These things happen. People with mental illnesses are not insane; we’re not crazy,” she said. Welch agreed, adding that while it isn’t widely discussed at Wooster, she believes that students care about mental health tremendously, citing an instance last year in which she received 600 signatures in two hours on a petition she started for a third counselor at Wellness.

“I think mental illness is an issue that is hushed-up on this campus, for sure,” Karapandzich said. “Someone has to step up and be the one to talk about mental illness, and it shouldn’t have to be the students who are already vulnerable … If the Wellness Center wants to be able to connect with students, they need to work to make this a safe space to talk about mental illness — which means they need to be a lot louder in talking about mental illness.”

While understanding that students have a variety of frustrations, Tucker noted that a path forward is made more difficult by the fact that Wooster’s Wellness Center is on par with some of the best college services according to feedback he has received at national conferences, something he said he doubts students are aware of. “We have no one in front of us to tell us what to do, because we are at the forefront of what’s really happening,” he said. “We are just as advanced as any other health center on a college campus that isn’t connected to a hospital… still, that doesn’t mean that there’s no frustration, and that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do.”

While points of concern are abundant, it’s also apparent that students’ reservations about mental health are inflamed immensely by negative interactions that they experience or hear about from others. Why would students err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt to a service that requires as much trust as their own mental health? Karapandzich attested to this effect, saying that she has avoided seeking counseling after hearing her friends’ experiences, and Welch expressed that many students give up trying to see a counselor or do not try at all because of what they’ve heard about the waitlist.

From Tucker’s perspective, though, this needs to be worked against, as he feels that the majority of students who do use mental health services have positive experiences. Those experiences, he said, just may not be shared as widely as a negative one. As always, though, he reiterated that this shouldn’t overshadow students’ real concerns. “I never want to make it sound like there’s no room for improvement,” said Tucker.

So what is the path forward? It seems that two parties, students and Wellness — although Wellness is certainly not the only party responsible for mental health on the College’s end — are unaware of how much the other cares about mental health. When asked about whether they feel they can communicate their concerns or create change in response to their concerns, students expressed a widespread feeling of powerlessness.

“I’m just one person,” AlBashaireh elaborated. “I don’t feel like [the College] listens to individual voices when it comes to making large-scale changes. I feel like if I were to get anything done, I’d have to do a petition, or a protest, you know? To get the kind of large-scale attention that this warrants.”

The degree to which Tucker expressed wishing to improve services to better help students, though, cannot be overstated. Tucker acknowledged that the gap in perspective between Wellness staff and students is the very reason they need better communication.

Tucker wants students to know that he shows all student feedback to his whole staff — both complaints and compliments — and strongly encourages students to communicate any feedback concerning mental health services to the Wellness Center, applauding the Student Government Association for doing so in the past.

“Anybody can email me any question or thought at any time,” said Tucker. “I never want there to be any sort of adversarial relationship.”

“I don’t want to make it sound like there’s no room for improvement,” Tucker concluded. “If it doesn’t reach the students, then what are we doing?”

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