Dartmouth develops initiatives to address students’ mental health
This story was originally produced by the Valley News. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.
Students who are seniors now at Dartmouth College began their matriculation in the fall of 2020, amid strict COVID-19 protocols.
Few of the college’s typical welcome traditions took place. Fall First-Year Trips were canceled, gatherings were restricted in size and the numbers of students on campus at the same time were reduced, meaning students spent time isolated in dorm rooms or at home. Students who violated the COVID-19 rules were sent home on short notice.
“It was definitely a difficult time for us ’24s,” Jonathan Cartwright, a senior psychology major, said in a recent phone interview.
That year also was marked by loss. Cartwright’s friend and fellow ’24, Beau DuBray, died by suicide that first term on campus in November 2020.
“It was a very shocking start to the term,” Cartwright said of DuBray’s death. It “took over a year to feel like I recovered from (that loss) or was on stable ground.”
Two other members of the class would take their own lives before the end of the academic year. Following the third death — Elizabeth Reimer, who died by suicide at her home on New York’s Long Island in May 2021 — the college held a vigil to honor those who were lost.
For Cartwright, the student-organized vigil was “very transformative” and “finally created a community” on campus. It was “students who made it … healing.”
In the years since, the college has taken additional steps to bolster mental health support for students, adding counselors and offering free teletherapy through Uwill, as well as access to a wellness app, Headspace. Dartmouth also partnered with The JED Foundation, a nonprofit working to prevent suicides of young adults, and is preparing to release a new mental health strategic plan next month. Recently, administrators announced a new time away policy for students, who had cited the previous policy as an obstacle to wellness.
President Sian Leah Beilock, who was officially inaugurated on Friday, has announced she will make mental health a priority of her administration.
For the first time, the college plans to hire a chief health and wellness officer who will report directly to Beilock. And this Thursday, the college is hosting all the living U.S. surgeons general on campus for a symposium on youth mental health.
“We know that anxiety, stress and depression, particularly among young people, are at an all-time high, having been exacerbated by the global pandemic,” Beilock said in her inaugural address on Friday.
To help students better care for themselves, Beilock plans to implement changes informed by her research as a cognitive scientist focused on anxiety and stress. She hinted at the contents of the new strategic plan and said it “is aimed at strengthening wellness among all our students — from first years to the graduate and professional schools, enhancing their capacity for learning and putting them on a path to realizing their full potential.”
Challenges for youth mental health predate the COVID-19 pandemic and extend beyond Dartmouth.
Nationally, several indicators pointed in the wrong direction before the pandemic, including an increasing proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness; increases in youth psychiatric visits to emergency departments for depression, anxiety and behavioral challenges and increasing rates of deaths by suicide of young people ages 10 to 24, according to a 2021 advisory “Protecting Youth Mental Health” released by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
The reasons for the increases are myriad. In addition to the isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic, the surgeon general’s advisory points to young people being more willing to report mental health concerns, growing use of digital media, increasing academic pressure, limited access to mental health care, alcohol and drug use and broader stressors including the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, rising income inequality, racism, gun violence and climate change.
In a Zoom interview last week, Dartmouth Provost David Kotz acknowledged the challenges and losses experienced by the class of 2024, as well as the broad stressors young people face.
Kotz, who became interim provost in summer 2021, described the college’s work since as part of its engagement with The Jed Foundation to examine the mental health structure as it exists at Dartmouth and ways that it can be improved. That has included conducting surveys and collecting data, including through interviews with students, faculty and staff, on mental health on campus.
The forthcoming strategic plan has been informed by this data. The plan, which the college’s board of trustees was slated to review at its meeting last week, includes both short and longer term goals.
Not all the supports deal directly with mental health services, Kotz said. For example, the college on Tuesday announced a new child care subsidy for employees, ranging from $4,000 annually for employees earning $60,000 or less to $1,000 for those earning $151,000 or more. Beilock, in her address on Friday, said the college is committing to adding 1,000 new beds to help alleviate the housing crunch, which she described as “one of the biggest sources of stress within our campus community.”
Other changes have been more specific to mental health, including launching the Uwill teletherapy service, which provides support to students for free 24/7 anywhere in the world.
It “meets them where they are,” Kotz said. “Text, Zoom, whatever.”
He also noted the recently announced change to the policy on time away for students for medical reasons. Annually about 75 members of Dartmouth’s 6,500-student body need to take a break, he said, for either mental or physical health conditions. As part of the new policy, the college will hire a full-time staff person whose primary role is to assist students as they initiate their leave and reintegrate on their subsequent return to classes.
Students on leave also will have access to campus, just as members of the public do. And those covered by health insurance through the college will now be able to retain it for the remainder of that year and up to as long as another year for those who qualify for financial assistance.
“Most people come back; most people come back within two years,” Kotz said.
Adithi Jayaraman, a member of the class of 2024 and co-president of the Dartmouth Mental Health Union, is among those who took a leave and returned. Jayaraman described the medical leave policy that was just released as a “200% improvement from the old one.”
“I think Dartmouth is really prioritizing mental health right now,” she said. She’s “optimistic it’s going to improve.”
Even with supportive parents and financial resources to afford her own therapist, Jayaraman said she faced numerous obstacles while on her leave.
“It was just a very rocky journey,” she said, recounting the experience of trying to re-enroll in classes and find housing before she could return.
Having someone on campus who is responsible for helping students navigate such processes will make it “so much more streamlined” and “less frightening,” she said. Making the leave policy less frightening will help it to be “more healing,” she said.
Upon her return to campus, Jayaraman joined the Mental Health Union, which provides peer support and also advocates for and brings awareness to mental health issues. She shared her experience with college officials and helped to inform the new policy. That experience, she said, was “transformative for me.” She was able to “use (a) dark period of my life to make change.”
“We know that anxiety, stress and depression, particularly among young people, are at an all-time high, having been exacerbated by the global pandemic.”Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock.
For Caroline Conway, co-president of the Mental Health Union, the launch of the Uwill service last fall marked a turning point in the college’s approach to mental health.
Before that, Conway said her impression was that there was too much red tape for significant change to take place on an institutional level. She said she felt the launch of Uwill, which she described as a “wonderful, shocking present,” “emerged from the sense of urgency” that came out of their freshman year. She watched as mental health “suddenly become something (the college) couldn’t afford to put off.”
Jess Chiriboga, a senior and student body president, also pointed to Uwill as one of the “biggest changes” the college has made on the mental health front. It signaled to students that the college was willing to spend money to address a need students had identified, she said. She also said the Headspace app has been helpful in allowing students, including herself, to access mindfulness exercises that can help during times of stress or anxiety.
“Over the last year, I’ve seen more trust built between students, staff and senior leadership,” Chiriboga said. “Students have seen the commitment.”
While students have been involved in the college’s institutional changes and the Jed process, Dartmouth student government also has taken its own steps to address mental health. Students led the effort to open a tranquility room in the school’s wellness center earlier this year. The room sees about 200 students a week, Chiriboga said. The room serves as a quiet place for students to “wind down when they need it,” Kiara Ortiz, Dartmouth’s student body vice president, said.
Student government also has worked to open two teletherapy rooms inside Baker-Berry Library. The rooms give students a private space to use the Uwill sercrivice.
The government also has launched an idea lab, which offers $1,000 grants for student mental health and wellness initiatives such as a bereavement group, which meets to help students process their grief. Other initiatives include sun lamps — which can be checked out of the library — intended to combat seasonal affect disorder and a well-being resource map to help students locate the resources they need.
“There’s more hope, I would say, on campus since the pandemic,” Chiriboga said.
Chiriboga said she also is encouraged by some of the recently announced changes, including the planned hiring of a chief health and wellness officer, who will report directly to the president and who will oversee the institution’s health and wellness programs.
The new position signals the importance of such issues to the college, Chiriboga said. She also thinks the new hire will make it easier to implement the changes outlined in the soon-to-be-announced strategic plan.
Not everyone is sold on the new position. Ethan Dixon, a member of the class of 2024 who helped organize a suicide-awareness walk in the spring, the college’s first since the start of the pandemic, said he views the move as “just reshuffling powers. It’s purely fluff.”
Dixon also said he wished the college had done more to help advertise the spring suicide awareness walk.
“We’ve kind of forgotten the students we’ve lost,” Dixon said. “This was a way of kind of reminding people that it is an issue. If we don’t stare right in its eyes, we’re going to keep losing students.”
Leah Gawel, whose son Sam, a member of the class of 2023, died by suicide on campus last September, met with Dartmouth administrators, including Beilock, last week.
Gawel, a Piermont resident, got a preview of all of the college’s plans for improving mental health access on campus and was impressed.
“It was really heartwarming to see how seriously they’re taking this,” Gawel said.
The meeting wasn’t her idea.
“They reached out to me and invited me to come and chat with them,” Gawel said. “People were really approachable, thoughtful, genuine,” she said. She “felt heard.”
It’s not clear which if any of the initiatives might have prevented Sam’s death, which Gawel said came as a surprise. The family remembers Sam not for how he died but for his life, which was vibrant and included a love of the outdoors.
“You can guess all you want,” Gawel said. “There’s a lot about suicide that we don’t know. We’re losing our future.”
Gawel said she hopes that the college’s efforts help to “normalize mental health” on campus, offer “outlets for stress” and ways that people, who may not have even considered their mental health, “could do better, feel better, perform better.”
The surgeons general event, “The Future of Mental Health and Wellness,” is scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. on Thursday in Leede Arena in Hanover. The in-person event is full, but a livestream will be available at: youtube.com/watch?v=6v5iyxxDvqc.
If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 988 or 1-800-273-8255. The New Hampshire Rapid Response Access Point, the local mobile crisis response clinician teams for people in sis in the state, can be reached by phone at 833-710-6477 or online at NH988.com. YouthLine can be reached by calling 877-968-8491 or by texting teen2teen to 839863. A crisis text line can be reached by texting HELLO to 741741.