The Examiner is a column dedicated to discussing and examining campus issues and the Macalester experience.
Last week my colleague Julia Bintz wrote a compelling column on the issue of wellness days. Her nuanced piece explored the desirability of wellness days, as it promotes the mental health of students. Ultimately she came to the conclusion that an alternative model in which students could elect to take time for themselves when it is most appropriate for them, instead of regimented scheduled wellness days, is preferable. I am skeptical of the purpose and effectiveness of wellness days. To a great extent, I agree with her, though we have some differences which I hope to get into. However before I do that there is something I must address. When Julia and I did the planning for our opinion pieces on wellness days it was a hypothetical meant to address the general difficulties of being a student with a demanding workload. At that time, I was prepared to argue against the premise that our collective lack of “wellness” necessitates a universal day off. Since then, a five hour sit-in took place, in which more specific and serious concerns were raised, and in the immediate aftermath a wellness day has materialized. Though the reasoning behind the upcoming wellness day is fundamentally different from the premise Julia and I originally attempted to engage with, in reconsidering my approach to this different kind of wellness day, I was surprised by how little my argument has changed.
Despite the magnitude of many students’ need for help, a universal day off remains a poor solution. A day off will not improve the well-being of the international and BIPOC students who expressed dire unmet concerns regarding their visas and the political conflicts in their home countries that impact them. Similarly, a day off will not alleviate the financial and emotional burden of low-income students struggling to make ends meet. Providing students with a day off ultimately does two things: first, instituting a wellness day as a response to conflict is a way for the administration to provide the illusion of taking steps to materially benefit students who are suffering without making many sacrifices. Second, cancelling class deprives students of the education to which they dedicate four years of their lives and a great deal of tuition money.
This is not a question of whether or not students deserve a break. Students deserve a lot of things, including a response from the administration when they demonstrate a need to communicate with them. I propose that we should switch the conversation from what students deserve to what would be helpful. I contend that a wellness day falls short in addressing the needs of students requiring much greater targeted support and actively harms the quality of education for all students. While I do not doubt there are some students who would get some relief from a day off, it is far from a panacea. To be fair to EPAG, they did note that “a wellness day is merely one step in what must be paired with continuing actions.” I’ll continue to hold out hope for these “continuing actions,” but in the meantime I fail to see how lazily cancelling class for everyone counts as a real step towards addressing the distress of the students in Kagin.
As for needing a break from the daily struggles of being a student with a heavy workload, I am sympathetic to the idea. Students need to be able to draw healthy boundaries that allow them to meet their academic responsibilities and maintain their mental health. As I have made clear, I do not think a wellness day is an appropriate response to that need. In the tradeoff between workload and burden on mental health, I am uncertain there are worthwhile institutional changes to be made. Though it is not perfect, Macalester has a well developed apparatus to assist students with conflicts between school work and wellbeing. These resources include the mental health counselors and support groups at the Hamre Center, Disability Services, the Department of Multicultural Life and, perhaps most importantly, the individual relationships between students and their professors. A combination of utilizing these resources and maintaining candid communication with professors is an effective way to navigate mental health concerns and academic performance. The Department of Multicultural Life even sponsored an event on how to ask professors for help.
Furthermore, learning to advocate for oneself, seeking available resources and communicating effectively and professionally with authority figures like professors is an essential skill worth developing. If Macalester took those steps of reaching out on students’ behalf, they would rob students of an educational opportunity. Professors tend to be generous and understanding, and they are encouraged to be so by the administration. Even those rare cases of working with stubborn and unhelpful professors are productive learning experiences.
I am a person who receives accommodations through Disability Services for a chronic mental illness, and I ask professors for extensions on assignments on an as-needed basis. During my first year, I suffered a severe mental health crisis and sought help from the Hamre Center. At the time, they recommended I take a leave of absence because my mental health was too poor for me to continue meeting my academic responsibilities; it was the best advice I could have received. I continue to struggle with my mental health and it does affect my ability to perform in school. However, I am confident that the support exists at Macalester to facilitate a generally positive experience. Disability Services provides assistance to students struggling with their mental health, whether they have a diagnosable chronic illness or are temporarily impacted to the point that it impedes their ability to perform. My point is not to say that everything is perfect or that what has worked for me will necessarily work for everyone. I have come to expect that sacrifices to my mental health are a greater expense than sacrifices to my grades or class attendance, and sometimes those things do suffer. Though those instances of sacrifice are unfortunate, it is unclear if there is anything more Macalester could be doing, or if they should be doing anything more at all.
With all of these resources in mind, perhaps it is important to consider whether it is the college’s responsibility to ensure students’ mental wellbeing in general. Of course, I am not advocating for the administration to be cold and apathetic. However, I think it is important for students to center their mental health as their own primary responsibility. Indeed, schoolwork can be a source of stress; however, I reject the notion that simply by virtue of providing a rigorous environment in which students are inevitably going to be under stress, the college assumes responsibility for mending any “unwellness” that may come as a result of that stress. Subjecting students to difficulty and a high workload does not constitute harm, and thus students are not entitled to amends. When students see fit, they should give themselves a break but that does not mean there won’t be consequences.