The 10-week term structure is no excuse for Dartmouth. Students must have access to long-term mental health care on campus.
Many of us have heard of Dartmouth’s “duck syndrome”: It’s week five, midterms are upon you, the stress of extracurricular activities has piled up, deadlines are approaching, the fear of finding this internship for your next off-term peaks and frankly, you sleep more in the Baker-Berry library than in your dorm. And yet you should appear calm above the surface of the water, a graceful duck gently making its way around the pond. If anyone peeked below, however, they would see webbed feet wading frantically. This is the amount of energy the duck must expend in order not to drown. No one would know from its appearance that the duck is barely staying afloat.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, “duck syndrome” is an all too common experience for 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 while in school. I have found that some Dartmouth students have very little experience in seeking treatment for issues like anxiety and depression. High school was such a busy time that many never considered seeking medical attention for their mental health. I would know – as someone who took medical withdrawal when I fell in my freshman year due to chronic depression, I found myself not only having to pay attention to an aspect of my health that I was unaware of for years, but also shocked by the lack of infrastructure for mental health services at an Ivy League facility. Even after waking up drama year for the Class of 2024, it became clear that there was no way the College could provide me with the medical care I needed to improve my mental health. This institutional failure forced me to make the extremely difficult choice of withdrawing from my very first mandate.
After two terms off, I returned to campus in the spring of 2022 to start my freshman year. During my six months of recovery at home, I was fortunate to have providers who were invested in my full recovery, supporting me every step of the way. Coming back with a new perspective on mental health, it deeply saddens me to think that the care system here in 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 sentiment. When seeking advice, students must go through a process called “triage” – essentially, a scheduled telephone interview with an advisor to discuss why you need it and what kind of help you want to seek. My first experience with one of these triage appointments was in the fall of 2021, and it can be summed up as me explaining to the counselor that I woke up numb and desperate every day only for her to say “try to keep a journal of your feelings!”
To serve the student population of approximately 4,000 undergraduates, the College currently has only Seven staff advisors. This means that for every 571 students on campus there is one counsellor. Additionally, the College has two psychiatrists, but meeting one of them requires a lengthy referral process, and the first available appointment can take a month. These vendor/student ratios are absolutely abysmal, and they inevitably result in overworked staff. It is clear that many students are dissatisfied. The Dartmouths senior survey of the most recent class, the class of 2022, shows that an overwhelming majority of “91% of seniors said they were 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 must navigate a crushing maze just to get a quality, in-person appointment with one of the counsellors. Many simply give up.
What’s worse is that Dartmouth seems to believe that after each term, students hit the reset button on their sanity needs. If a student manages to get a few appointments in one term, the next term they basically have to start the whole process all over again. On the Dartmouth Health Services website, the College bluntly explains that “in order to meet the significant demand from students and to use its resources most effectively, the counseling center uses a short-term therapy model “. Pressure is exerted on the student to expedite their treatment within a period of less than 10 weeks.
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 good are on-campus counseling and therapy services if, in the end, most students are simply told to seek help elsewhere? Now the student must worry about insurance, arrange new appointments, and go through another exhaustive process, all on top of their existing struggles. To me, there’s no point in even trying to build a relationship with an on-campus counselor if they’re just going to fire me by next term due to “high student demand.” It’s a process that seems designed only to outsource crisis responsibility, not to prevent crises from happening in the first place.
Dear Dartmouth, that’s clear. We struggle. A lot. We desperately need help. Although College President Phil Hanlon has launched a partnership with the JED Foundation – a non-profit organization focused on improving student mental health and preventing suicide – we are still nowhere near the level. intervention we need. Instead of conducting more surveys that point to 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-stressing’ events hosted by House Communities. The College has the power to dispel prejudices about mental health treatment by taking proper responsibility for the needs of students, and it should act on that power.