By Lucy Altman-Newell ‘17
On Monday Oct. 27, Charlotte Johnson, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, hosted a Fireside Chat in the Toll Hall Rec Room to discuss student concerns regarding the treatment of mental health at Scripps College and across the Consortium as a whole. She opened the discussion by highlighting that although the issue of keeping up with the demand posed by mental health issues is universal across American colleges and universities, it is an issue that should not be ignored. “What I have done in my professional career is just to make sure that I and the rest of the team are trying to be responsive,” Dean Johnson said.
One concern that was brought up at the Fireside Chat was that often students can, in effect, get in trouble for struggling. For example, concerns were raised regarding the feeling of having rights revoked or being forced into therapy. Christina Whalen ’15 suggested that unnecessary actions could be avoided by asking the right questions — such as how severe an individual’s mental health issues are and what interventions these students themselves think they need — rather than generalizing and approaching each individual’s mental health issues in a formulaic way. Whalen added that therapy needs to be by choice — encouraged rather than forced — in order to avoid it becoming more threatening or damaging. Dean Johnson replied, “In the great majority of cases, letting students self pace and working with students to get help when they feel comfortable getting the help is actually quite doable. But there is that sort-of-narrow range of cases when we have evidence of possible … self harm or in rare cases — especially in this community — harm to another, where we are required really to take more — you would call it aggressive but we might call it assertive — sort of action to make sure that you’re ok.”
Another issue that several students voiced throughout the Fireside Chat was that they found Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services unhelpful and even harmful. Tori Sepand ‘15 voiced that in her experience as a Residential Advisor, students who have gone to Monsour have reported to her an unwillingness to return to that resource, so she has a hard time knowing where to direct students who come to her with mental health issues. “My experience with Monsour, at least with multiple friends who have gone to Monsour, is that they get an appointment, wait two weeks, go once, have a really bad experience and then never go again and never want to go again,” Sepand stated. Another student reported concerns that if a student were to go to Monsour, his or her concerns would be pushed into a bigger issue; this prevents people from seeking any help at all.
The issue of lack of information surrounding mental health at the Claremont Colleges was also brought up. One student said that it would be helpful to have more information regarding Monsour’s procedures. Jocelyn Gardner ‘17 advocated for having general mental health information widely available as well. “A lot of people won’t know a lot about mental health to begin with or even know where a problem is until it escalates into a crisis,” said Gardner. “Any information is helpful in prevention and getting people to increase help-seeking which is really important because...so many people do not reach out and actually that’s where a huge percentage of the population of the students who do not finish semesters or drop out, that’s where they all come from. And in my experience, people have misconceptions and don’t know a lot. And if there’s any way to get that information out, especially if it’s on a peer-to-peer basis, that’s super helpful for people.”
Another point for which students requested clarification was if there were repercussions for going to the administration regarding mental health issues they may be experiencing. Dean Johnson replied that because there is no violation in the law with mental health as there is, for example, with underage drinking, those who experience mental health problems should not be penalized or made to feel that they will get into trouble for reporting their issues. However, “the lines get blurred if you present what appears to be a serious mental health disorder, and that can be defined in any number of ways,” Dean Johnson said. When this happens, the administration is obliged to get help for that need, but will always try to do it in the least disruptive way possible. “Your safety and your well-being are my number one priority,” continued Dean Johnson, “and they should be your number one priority. … If you have a mental health disorder that’s somehow preventing you from [working toward your Scripps degree while being healthy], you owe it to yourself really to take the time to get the help you need, regardless of whether it’s disruptive or not.
In terms of confidentiality, the administration only rarely shares information amongst themselves, and does so strictly on a need-to-know basis. However, students who want a “black box,” are encouraged to go to Monsour, the chaplain, or other professionals.
By the beginning of next term, Dean Johnson hopes to identify a direction in which to go to solve some of these issues. She and the other deans are open to hearing ideas and experiences of students “to help refine the structure in ways that make sense for you.” The deans have open office hours as well as “Coffee with the Deans” at the Motley, and students can also schedule appointments with them.
Some ideas that Dean Johnson outlined were hiring a psychologist on staff as Harvey Mudd College has recently done, as the administration outside of Monsour does not have specific mental health expertise. This psychologist would also be able to recommend specific therapists at or even outside of Monsour (for a list of therapists in the area, see http://www.cuc.claremont.edu/monsour/pdf/Community_Referral_List.pdf). As students only get eight sessions at Monsour each semester, the possibility of having an on-staff psychologist would also help students to not feel so limited in their ability to be helped.
Another concrete suggestion that Dean Johnson gave to help address the issue of limited mental health resources at Scripps was to have each student who comes into the college assigned a dean for all four years. The deans are available to help navigate through issues on an informal or formal basis; being assigned to a dean would provide consistency, as well as help decrease the overload that Sonia De La Torre-Iniguez, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Academic Support Services, experiences. This would speed up the process for students who need academic accommodations. There are already two positions to fill, so the current deans themselves would theoretically not experience much more additional strain. Services may also be generalized, which would mean that the deans would be able to grant academic accommodations and should theoretically be able to take care of most things that students need.
“If you don’t remember anything else that I’ve said, remember that you should not suffer in silence,” Dean Johnson said. “And if you’re feeling like you’re spiraling out of control or you need some assistance, we can connect you to that assistance. And really that’s my bottom line. We can connect you to that, and we never want to be judgmental. Honestly, there’s no judgment involved […] So just remember that.”