Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of substance abuse and suicide.
Following unusually long wait-times for student appointments this semester, the Counseling Center has hired two part-time interim staff members. During the second week of the fall semester, a Counseling Center employee left and their position remained vacant while the College searched for a qualified candidate. Broader conversations regarding mental health at Oberlin are framed by the College’s first comprehensive mental health survey which was conducted last semester.
“We are certainly backed up more than we would like to be at this point,” said John Harshbarger, director of Student Health and Counseling Services. “One way I like to look at it is if a student really is in a place where they need to talk something out and it’s impacting their academics, I don’t want them waiting two weeks if we can avoid it.”
One of the new part-time staff members started working on Nov. 14, the other will begin on Dec. 3. Harshbarger said that the search for a full-time, permanent staff member will resume in between semesters.
“The other difficult thing is that when you do a search at the beginning of a school year — especially if you’re looking for someone who’s done college counseling center work — they’re not looking for jobs in the beginning of the year, they’re looking for jobs in the spring,” Harshbarger said. “So we really just didn’t have a large pool of candidates.”
Other resources are being evaluated as part of Oberlin’s partnership with JED Campus, a four year program that administers a survey called The Healthy Minds Study and uses its data to recommend improvements to campus mental health resources. The study covers mental health issues like substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.
Historically, Oberlin has administered the National Collegiate Health Assessment every two years, which primarily looks at the physical health of students and only covers mental health in non-specific terms.
“[The National Collegiate Health Assessment] tells us that mental health concerns have been growing [at Oberlin] pretty much comparable to how they’ve been growing throughout the country,” said Eddie Gisemba, assistant dean of students and director of health promotion for students. “[The Healthy Minds Study] really helps us look at the issue of mental health as a whole under a microscope, which the Collegiate Health Assessment didn’t enable us to do.”
JED has worked with over a hundred campuses to create strategic plans focused on administrative and institutional change. At Oberlin, the Healthy Minds Study was sent to all current students. Around 29 percent of Oberlin students completed the survey.
“For the most common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, we do have responses in the survey that were above the national average in the colleges and universities in the study,” said Associate Dean of Students Matthew Hayden, who oversees the Center for Student Success. “We also have better than average responses on measures of stigma around mental health. Neither of those is actually surprising to me, but [those are] our challenges and strengths.”
JED also looked at resources that already exist at Oberlin.
“I will say, our ratio of the number of therapists to the number of students on campus is an unusually high number of clinicians for the size of the student body,” Hayden said.
College second-year Raavi Asdar and College third-year Emma Edney serve on the JED Campus working group as student senators alongside faculty members and administrators. They feel that more resources are essential to meet student needs.
“One frustration that we’ve had with some of this is a lot of the staff members that have mental wellness under their umbrella, [but] they just have so much else on their plate, so even if they want to prioritize that work, they are often unable to,” Edney said. “In our meetings with the administration, we’re really trying to push that we really, really, really need to make this an institutional priority and how that means reallocating people’s times so we can dedicate professional time to this issue.”
Asdar, Edney, and others feel that the information provided by the survey further illustrates their argument that more resources need to be allocated to create a healthier campus environment and culture.
“We had a higher-than-national-average incidence of self-reported suicidal ideation reported by students on this campus,” Edney said. “Pretty significantly above.”
Oberlin also has a higher rate of transportation to psychiatric hospitals, according to Asdar and Edney, though this could be because Oberlin has a higher percentage of students enacting help-seeking behavior, among other potential factors.
Asdar and Edney are in the process of teaming up with faculty and staff to implement new resources and educate students about existing resources. This includes making students aware of the Student Health and Resource Exchange. SHARE reports provide a forum for concerned faculty, staff, and students to alert the Office of the Dean of Students about an individual who may be at risk so that someone can check in with them.
Asdar, Edney and Hayden all hope to improve faculty and student training on how to recognize when someone is having thoughts of suicide, as well as other prevention education.
“We definitely are looking now at a range of gatekeeper programs and just mental health awareness and encouraging helping skills and coping skills,” Hayden said. “Somebody who has an hour and a half could take something like [Question Persuade Refer] training. Somebody who has eight hours might do something that looks like mental health first aid and get some more skills. And then at 30 hours of training, students can get through Peer Helping Skills I and II. [We’re] really building in a range of options.”
In addition, the College is working on making it easier to apply for medical leave.
“We made some changes to medical leave and that’s something that often happens as part of a JED process but we’ve actually made a lot of the changes that they would have recommended before starting this program,” Hayden said. “One of the recommendations is about having someone that’s not involved in the [medical leave] decision-making process as a resource and advocate for students. We actually have that already, but the JED recommendation made us think [that] maybe we need to change the language of how we describe it so that it’s transparent to students and this person is not a gatekeeper stopping you but rather advocating for you.”
As part of her work on Senate and within the JED working group, Edney hopes to improve awareness about the possibility of institutional change.
“Raavi and I are deeply burdened by the sense that these kinds of conversations aren’t happening as publicly as we would like them to be,” she said.
In addition, Asdar hopes that broader change can happen among campus culture
“There’s a big component of this that is student culture — it’s how we treat one another,” Asdar said. “I think we have a responsibility to each other, otherwise people feel isolated. There is a certain amount of student agency, getting people to recognize that I have the agency, I have the ability to change that.”