Campus Mental Health Crisis Predates Pandemic, Requires Systemic Address

Last week, the Review reported on faculty workshops intended to start a conversation about supporting student mental health. Over the last three years, the institution has seen an increase in requests for incompletes and withdrawals — reaching such a point where a faculty member offered an anecdote in December’s General Faculty meeting that half their class was seeking incompletes. Not only are students themselves burnt out and struggling, their increased requests for incompletes and withdrawals place an increased burden on already overworked faculty and staff.

As a direct result of this, the General Faculty chose to dedicate last week and next month’s sessions to workshops that focus on supporting student mental health in classrooms. While these workshops won’t constitute any mandatory or structural changes to Oberlin’s curriculum, they are designed to encourage faculty to consider how best to support students through improving communication and making potential alterations to their existing curricula that account for the fallout of the pandemic. The existence of these workshops is a positive step by the faculty, especially because they will start a long-overdue conversation on the need for higher education to adapt to our new reality — something we wrote about last semester (“Academia Must Adjust to Post-Pandemic Landscape,” The Oberlin Review, Dec. 2, 2022).

Yet, the beginning of this conversation brings two other concerns into focus. To start, faculty must contend with their own mental health issues and burnout with minimal institutional support. Additionally, the institution lacks sufficient mental health resources for systemic efforts by faculty to support student mental health. In this absence, the weight of responsibility for student wellbeing falls to the faculty. While we applaud the faculty’s commitment to addressing and improving student mental health, it is disheartening that it has to be done in workshops at general faculty meetings rather than through broad and substantive institutional support.  

It is also important to note that, according to Executive Director of Student Health and Wellbeing Andrew Oni, the numbe of students at Oberlin demanding mental health services is nearly double that of the national average — and that fact predates the pandemic. Moreover, the rate of students of color seeking incompletes or course withdrawals has stayed more or less constant for years prior to and through the pandemic, which is evidence of a persistent structural issue faced by students of color. These facts, all no doubt bearing incredible significance in their own right, are indicative of a long-term failure by the College to support its students. Each of us has, in various moments, felt the impact of this failure, but the data just proves that the damage to student and faculty welfare is felt across the board.

Acknowledging the years of struggle felt by students of color and opaque indicators of insufficient resources, we implore our administration to focus on doing right by everyone now.

In order to address this multifaceted issue in an effective manner, the administration should start small and with exacting precision by shortening wait times at the Counseling Center. Students shouldn’t have to be in crisis to qualify for a meeting with a licensed mental health professional within a day, because frankly, anything less than prevention is just callous. We understand there is a national shortage of mental health professionals, so create avenues for telehealth services or operate shuttles to nearby support centers. To the people responsible for our community’s mental health: find a solution that is feasible and execute it swiftly. The fact that things have gotten to the point where faculty must take it upon themselves to support student mental health is an indicator of dire straits. We appreciate the efforts of our professors, but a solely curricular approach isn’t going to solve anything in the short or long term. 

An inherent quality of our community is that we feel each other’s pain just as much as we celebrate each other’s joy. That, if nothing else, is why community should be cherished, because we are all in this together. To that end, the unilateral efforts of the faculty, while admirable, cannot alone solve the crisis of mental health that our institution is facing. Concrete and substantive steps must be taken to address this crisis before it spirals even further. The health and wellbeing of the entire institution depends on it.