On Tuesday, Nov. 10, members of Macalester Student Government (MCSG), Voices on Mental Health and a few community members gathered in Weyerhaeuser Chapel for the Community Mental Health Forum.
The forum included a panel formed by Associate Director for Health and Wellness Ted Rueff, Associate Dean of Students Lisa Landreman, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department Joan Ostrove and Assistant Dean of Students Robin Hart Ruthenbeck.
Though many members of the audience were a part of the two hosting groups, MCSG and Voices on Mental Health, Jolena Zabel ’16 MCSG Vice President and Student Service and Relations Committee (SSRC) chair said that the goal was to apply the conversations from the forum to the larger campus community.
Zoe Nardone ’16 and Jinath Tasnim ’16, the two members of Voices on Mental Health responsible for planning the event along with the SSRC, echoed Zabel’s hope that the event would be just the beginning of a larger look at mental health on campus.
“As voices of mental health we can have as many […] intentional conversations, events on storytelling, panels, spotlight events, educational campaigns [as we want], but one of the most important ways to cultivate and start creating lasting and substantive change is taking a look at our policies, or lack thereof, and looking at the ways in which this campus, policy-wise, supports students and their mental health,” Tasnim said. “So we thought this [forum] was a very important first step to take.”
After an introduction of each panel member, conversation turned to the preexisting systems of support for mental health on campus and the concerns driving the mental health conversation.
Rueff spent much of his time discussing the Health and Wellness programs in place and in the works for addressing mental health situations. He said that the counseling offices currently have about 75 slots a week for scheduled visits, eight to ten drop-in times and three different support groups. He also mentioned that last year counseling services saw 330 students for individual counseling and that 25 percent of health services are dealing with medication management appointments.
Rueff said that while there’s a lot Macalester does for mental health issues, it isn’t free from the larger national issues that plague mental health programs.
“The first thing we notice is in the past 10–15 years there has been an increasing […] demand every year for counseling services on the part of students,” Rueff said. “Coupled with that, we’re seeing an increase in the severity in presenting concerns. This has had the potential to overwhelm counseling services, and at Macalester that has been the case and it also has been the case nationally. Staffing has increased [at Macalester], however they have not been able to keep pace with the demands of students and that has led to problems with access which are front and center in terms of the kinds of things I think need to be remedied.”
Landreman talked about Student Affairs’s goal of seeing students as whole people—who they are and how they’re doing, both in and out of the classroom.
Ostrove described her work in disability studies to conceptualize normalcy and how impactful it is to a person’s mental health.
“One of the things that I really love about disability studies is that it really pushes us to realize that what ‘normal’ is. [It] is an entirely culturally, socially, historically made-up idea and there’s an incredible amount of pressure on us in any given cultural, historical, social milieu to ‘be’ normal,” Ostrove said. “And that is a bunch of crap. That’s just a bunch of BS, made-up garbage, but is this incredibly shared expectation [of] all of us.”
During Hart Ruthenbeck’s portion of the panel, she discussed her role as Disabilities Coordinator. Her main focus was on the importance of understanding how common a mental health diagnosis is for college students and how there’s no catch-all policy to help every student.
Following the panel, the conversation was turned over to the audience members to question the panelists and voice their concerns.
One student asked about enforcing the requirement that all syllabi included disability statements. While panel members said they recognized the importance of the statements, they had no real way to enforce their presence on syllabi.
“There’s no way to check that it does happen, but it is sent to every faculty each semester, a scripted example of what it could say,” Landreman said. “But if it’s not done, there’s no accountability for that currently.”
Other students asked about how Health and Wellness was trying to accommodate the excess demand on its counseling services. Rueff said that while the department recognizes the large demand, and have increased staff as a result, Macalester is still trying to decide how much need they have a responsibility to meet.
“I think in part it has to do with the fact that colleges are trying to decipher what their mission is in terms of meeting 100 percent of the needs of 100 percent of the students 100 percent of the time,” Rueff said. “Is that, in fact, their mission, or is there something short of that? Colleges [across the] country are wrestling with that, and Macalester is no exception.”
While concerns and questions were very prevalent in the conversation, there was some hope for improving campus programs following small group brainstorming sessions.
Groups proposed having intentional conversations with faculty on reducing the amount of stress students get from intense workloads, an anonymous site where students can report when they have concerns about their peers’ health, creating a source of accountability for the disability statements and having broader cross-campus conversations.