Mental Health Initiatives Reveal Where Student Opinion Heard Loudest

Editorial Board

Laundry prices and ObieID password changes notwithstanding, few things at Oberlin are as widely maligned as the College’s mental health resource infrastructure. While Student Health Services as a whole receives a significant amount of criticism from students year after year and while the College makes regular efforts to respond in due course, the way Oberlin handles mental health issues seems to consistently receive low marks.

These resources are understandingly in high demand, since any environment in which academic pressure and personal stresses collide necessitates an effective outlet for seeking help. In line with the issue’s persistence, Dean of Students Eric Estes’ Aug. 25 email to students — which focused largely on improvements to mental health — was the subject of intense scrutiny in the days leading up to the start of fall semester. Whether approaching its contents with criticism or commendation, Estes’ message offers valuable insight into the priorities and resolutions of an administration often billed as deficient.

In his email, Estes cites feedback obtained via the Oberlin Mental Health Alliance and the administration-endorsed Student Senate referendum as prompting funding reallocations and support staff hires. The cooperation that helped bring about the newly-minted Peer Support Center was due largely to the efforts of students in bringing the issue to light, Estes said. In an email to the Review he added that certain changes, such as Student Health Services’ addition of Saturday hours, were made in response to clear feedback. On the 2014 spring Student Senate referendum, 172 out of 321 respondents — or 53.6 percent — said they would like to see the Counseling Center’s walk-in hours open during the weekend.

However, this is not always the case. The College remains silent on more costly changes, such as moving Student Health Services and the Counseling Center closer to campus. Overwhelming student support (92.3 percent of students responded “Yes” to the move in the 2014 referendum) and a recommendation from the Student Health Working Group’s end-of-semester report has not seemed to influence the administration’s actions.

In a report, the Student Health Working Group stated that “neither the working group nor Student Senate have the resources to conduct a survey that would provide [an accurate account of student opinion]. If financial incentives are required,” the report read, “we believe that the benefits of information well exceed the costs that would result.”

The larger lesson here is that the administration generally prioritizes neater and cleaner avenues of change carried out in smaller increments. This is not a statement intended to devalue the effectiveness of grassroots organizing, nor is it intended to criticize the administration’s decision-making. It is, however, an informed observation. When it comes to budgeting for the maintenance and expansion of mental health facilities on campus, the administration often turns to affiliated metrics to assess student opinion.

This may help explain why the referendum’s completion rate remains consistently low, as it has for years. This past semester, 415 out of 2,961 total students filled it out. In 2013, 860 students completed the referendum, but those numbers may be affected by the survey’s extension into the fall 2014 semester; the 2013–2014 referendum required at least half the student body to vote. Aside from this notable exception, however, previous referendums exhibit uniformly poor completion rates. So why, on a campus known for speaking out, does the number of voices on this survey dwindle?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t exactly clear. Apathy may be the culprit for some students, though outcry among several communities of students remains consistent. Confusion in the face of bureaucracy is also a viable explanation, likely for a broader student base.

Clearer is that this trend must change. Students who desire change in the more immediate future must take the Senate’s referendums, working groups and other administrative paths to action seriously. At the same time, it is up to the administration and, to a lesser extent, Senate, to develop more straightforward methods of assessing and responding to student opinion.

Whether by incentivizing the completion of forthcoming referendums or by creating a new, simplified survey all its own, the administration must understand that increased transparency with regard to mental health initiatives is not only possible but essential if they hope to decrease friction between themselves and the students they serve.