Thrive on Campus//

What Does It Take for Colleges to Care About Student Mental Health?

A status on mental health at Yale University

The sun sets on Yale University's Old Campus. Photo by Katherine Du.
The sun sets on Yale University's Old Campus. Photo by Katherine Du.

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Behind the ivory gates of Yale University’s walls, you’ll occasionally hear students crack jokes about the university’s health services. In an online Facebook group titled “Overheard at Yale,” students post their everyday, eavesdropped conversations: “I called Yale Health and they told me I had to wait four years to get a physical.” It’s common knowledge that wait times at Yale Health and the corresponding Yale Mental Health and Counseling, as well as other universities’ health services, are unsatisfactory for students at large. This comes as a surprise for Yale students, who believe that the school’s $30.3 billion dollar endowment should come with a robust mental healthcare system. 

College students in general are no strangers to stressful conditions. Shoulders slumped, hands shielding his teary eyes, a boy breaks down in the high school hallway during lunch, bearing the weight of academic pressure on his shoulders. A friend stands by awkwardly, softly nudging the defeated boy and whispering “it’s OK” but unsure of how to further help him. Multiple classmates dropped out of our competitive high schools for mental health reasons, others admitted their hopelessness with mental health in an anonymous Facebook community, and some attempted or committed suicide. 

One brisk autumn night, I received an email from Yale noting that one of my classmates had passed away from an apparent suicide. Although there was a noticeable silence on campus, students continued to study as their academics and extracurriculars gave them no time to mourn. It made me wonder: By not addressing students’ concerns around mental wellness and illness, is Yale normalizing the experiences of those with mental illness as part of college life? If so, how can Yale claim to be one of the greatest universities in the world if it falls silent on issues surrounding mental illness?

Witnessing these instances and listening to personal stories of close friends’ struggles with mental health motivated us to do what we could to change campus culture.

Mental health care should of course save extreme cases of mental illness but also extend beyond, permeating and touching the entire campus.

As members of the Yale College Council, we produced a report detailing the status of mental health at Yale about a year ago utilizing data through a college-wide survey.

The key findings of the report reveal that although students responded that they were overall happy at Yale, they felt that Yale University was not as supportive in regard to mental health. Though the overall quality of care at Yale Mental Health & Counseling was excellent, the efficiency and quantity of care could be improved. For example, students report that it takes more than a month to receive actual, quality treatment. Most importantly, over a majority of respondents stated that their wait times were unreasonable given their concerns. 

We aggregated this data and produced recommendations utilizing feedback from the Yale community. Some of these recommendations include creating more spaces dedicated to improving students’ mental health, hiring more diverse staff, and streamlining the process of finding mental health professionals outside of Yale Mental Health & Counseling. 

Currently, we meet with multiple administrators who have a stake in mental health-related reform to implement initiatives and policies that we believe will enhance students’ mental health on campus. We also hold mental health focus groups with students. Other student groups, such as the Yale Student Mental Health Association (formerly Minds Matter), have expanded our efforts of promoting good mental health by holding events for the nearby New Haven community. These are just a few instances of mental health work on campus; many other clubs and communities at Yale continue to promote and advocate for healthier minds. Students are often the most active and engaged with these issues and do phenomenal work in destigmatizing conversations around mental health. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect between the students and Yale University about student needs. 

Our report proves this point: While the overall goal of it was to provide a holistic assessment of mental health status on Yale’s campus, the report’s other goal was to initiate change through policy and data. A year after its release, it’s easy to see that little change has occurred in regard to student mental health and wellness. The administration claims that policy memos and data are the most effective way to actuate change on campus, yet even these methods seem to do little for advocacy. At the base of these conversations is the harrowing reality that what Yale chooses to do — and yes, complacency is an active choice — is a sign of what it values. Mental wellness and healthcare are basic human needs. Yes, they are complicated issues to deal with, but the reality is that if Yale truly cares about the outcry of students and their experiences, it would have changed its system long ago. Behind its ivory gates, Yale continues to silence and ignore the voices of those who want to take care of themselves. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words.

Yale can say it cares about the well-being of its students, but until it addresses the years of concerns voiced by its students, we have every right to say that Yale doesn’t care.

And this assessment isn’t unfair or unjust, but the reality of what surrounds campus mental health culture in other universities around the world as well.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental illness and need support, please call the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) helpline, 800-950-6264. Or, in a crisis? Text NAMI TO 741741.

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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