Administrators Block Student Efforts to Survey Mental Health

Since last October, I have served as chair of the Student Senate Health and Wellness working group. When I first joined, I assumed that our work would focus on physical health and safety surrounding COVID-19. However, while the College has largely succeeded in minimizing the transmission of COVID-19 on campus, there has been far less work done to address student mental health. From our own experiences and those of our peers, our group came to the self-evident conclusion that students are struggling far beyond what is normal. Among our other mental health initiatives, we set out to identify the scope of this issue, planning to add three mental health questions to the daily symptoms survey. However, the symptom survey software made adding questions and collecting data very complicated, so instead, we hoped to administer a mental health survey during the spring semester. Six students, two psychology professors, and five members of the administration collaborated to develop this survey over the course of four months. It screened for anxiety and depression, identified coping strategies, asked about hardship and discrimination faced as a result of COVID-19, and gathered important demographic information. The administration offered to help us raise awareness about the survey by encouraging students to fill it out as they received their monthly COVID-19 tests. This process was perfectly in line with the plan that administrators had laid out at the start of the fall semester — Senate and administration working hand in hand to accomplish a mutual goal. 

Except spring semester is here, and there is no survey. In December, after numerous meetings, I was informed over email that my request had to be run up the flagpole to other administrators. A promised follow-up Zoom meeting never occurred. I emailed back and was redirected to another member of the administration, who was on leave at the time. Finally, a week before the survey was due to start, I emailed again and was informed that after a private discussion between administrators, the survey had been halted. The administration argued that it wouldn’t be appropriate for non-clinicians to administer an anonymous survey, because it prevents them from intervening. I was promised updates later that day. They have yet to arrive.

When I first read their reply, I was stunned by both its content and brevity. Four months of work wasted, without so much as an apology or acknowledgment of the efforts put in by so many people. The reasoning they gave for canceling the project was that an anonymous survey would impede the College’s ability to assist someone in distress. But this problem had been discussed — and I assumed dismissed — in a meeting I had attended with the same administrators, two months prior. While an anonymous survey may prevent the College from intervening, it does not exacerbate the problem that is already present. Specifically, asking questions about suicidality or other harmful behaviors does not tend to increase the risk of those behaviors, according to an article by Dr. Cheryl King. In my opinion, choosing no survey over an anonymous survey is akin to the administration closing their eyes and stating that since they can’t see the problem, it does not exist.

As dissatisfying as this response was, it is secondary to an even larger issue. Without comprehensive data on student mental health, initiatives that could help students will be sidelined. During the fall semester, the only real academic break took place over Thanksgiving, more than two-thirds of the way into the semester. When Senate raised this issue with senior administration, we were told that grades were high, insinuating that students must be okay. Although improved mental health has been proven to result in better grades, good grades are not direct evidence of improved mental health. Grades could also be susceptible to influence by a number of other factors, such as professors’ increased leniency during the pandemic or students studying more to distract themselves from other stressors.

In Senate’s advocacy for classes to be canceled on Election Day, we centered mental health. Yet in the Educational Plans and Policies Committee’s recommendation for classes to be canceled — a symbolic measure they took, it is worth noting, in lieu of sending an official proposal to the General Faculty Committee to cancel classes — they did not mention mental health. In President Ambar’s letter to the College community, there was again zero mention of mental health. Until there is a campus-wide conversation about the importance of mental health, efforts to address student mental health will not be undertaken with the seriousness or transparency essential for tangible change.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to ignore that several members of the administration were enthusiastic about this work. Indeed, I was once optimistic about our collaboration, my hopes buoyed by their willingness to answer our questions and search for solutions. However, it appears that the politics of the College have once again taken precedence over what is best for students. Senate plans to institute our survey by other means, independently of the administration. While we strive for a productive relationship with the administration, it’s not unlikely that without their help we would already have implemented this survey.