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Board talks with staff, students about mental health challenges

Administrators and students met with the William & Mary Board of Visitors Thursday to discuss concerns stemming from multiple student suicides during the 2014-15 academic year, including, most recently, sophomore Paul Soutter’s on April 13.

“It is a time for introspection; it is a time for self-examination,” said Rector Todd Stottlemyer ’85. “It’s a time appropriately, as you all are doing, to ask questions. What are we doing particularly well? What can we do better? Are there areas where resources, based on clinical data and evidence, [are needed] to improve the climate, to improve the care?”

The meeting, which involved Student Affairs staff members and student representatives, included discussion about the Counseling Center, the university’s response to suicide and campus policies on issues such as medical leave. Following Soutter’s death, students and alumni raised concerns regarding those topics and more via social media, the student press and a campus forum held Wednesday.

“We heard what students were saying,” said Marjorie Thomas, dean of students. “Let me be frank: It doesn’t matter that students only need to fill out one form to be cleared [to return after medical leave]. If it feels like 10 or 15, that means my office has to do something more.”

Colleges and universities now have a higher percentage of students with a greater need for counseling services, said Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness. Demand on the William & Mary Counseling Center has risen significantly within the last 15 years, starting with a 40 percent spike in the early 2000s after Sept. 11 and another 15-20 percent increase after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Those increases have not diminished since.

Advances in medication and therapy mean that people with serious mental health diagnoses are able to function far more successfully than ever before, Crace said. Many of the same students might not have been able to attend college decades ago.

About 30 percent of students seen by the center have been diagnosed with a mental health condition prior to arriving at college, and another third will be diagnosed with either an acute or chronic condition while at the university, said Warrenetta Mann, director of the Counseling Center. The center hosts 40 scheduled appointments per week as well as walk-in sessions and therapy groups.

Resiliency among young adults also plays a role in the increasing demand for counseling services at William & Mary, as does a campus culture that “defines success by suffering,” Crace said. “If I am no longer distinct because of my intelligence because everybody here is bright … my only distinction is my effort,” he said.

Megan Brew ’15 said that William & Mary’s competitive environment is unique in that it is “almost a subtle competition.”

“I feel motivated and inspired by it, but that still creates a pressure on me to do more and pack my schedule and live an unhealthy lifestyle,” she said.

In order to meet the demand, the Counseling Center has gone to a “best-practices” model, which combines professional clinicians with doctoral-level interns and practicum students, as well as a community network, said Crace.

“What we heard last night (during the town hall meeting) is that with many students this model works very well, and with some students it doesn’t,” Crace said. “It’s a model that we need to continually revise and improve and optimize.”

Some of the changes coming to the Counseling Center include the hiring of a full-time psychiatrist; a contract with ProtoCall, an after-hours telephone service for students with emergent mental health concerns; and a contract with Therapist Assist Online, offering web-based modules for students dealing with depression, anxiety and stress.

Regarding the university’s response to suicides, students at the Board meeting voiced concerns about experiencing silence on the deaths from staff and faculty and a “business-as-usual” atmosphere on campus.

“For a lot of students, this might be the first time experiencing death in their life,” said former Student Assembly President Colin Danly ’15. “You’re faced with these big questions of life when you first experience a death that’s close to you. If you have no one around you that realizes that and acknowledges that someone has passed away, it’s not just disrespectful, it really kind of messes with your head, like what is the point if no one takes a moment to say, ‘This person has left’?”

For most faculty, Crace said, staying silent on the topic isn’t for a lack of care, but out of fear.

“A fear of saying the wrong thing, a fear of, ‘I don’t know how to do this right,’” said Crace. “And so that’s what we have to help them with and to help give them a sense of confidence and to be awkward and be uncomfortable and still have the conversation.”

“Developmentally, our job is to help work with the students to understand what can be done in this environment,” said Mann. “Essentially what they’re saying is we want to know that you’re human and that it matters. What they’re saying is that we need to be able to trust that when you say ‘One Tribe, One Family’ it’s not just at (student) orientation but that goes throughout the time that they’re connected to the College.”

Danly said that the university has done such a good job at marketing “One Tribe, One Family,” that students come to William & Mary expecting it to be “this perfect, wonderful community when the reality of life sets in and it’s just like, some things aren’t perfect, and it’s hard to necessarily reconcile that.

“And I think that’s the same idea of looking at the Counseling Center. If you paint the Counseling Center as you go in one time and you’re fixed and that’s it, you’re going to have people more dissatisfied because that’s not how life works. Sometimes it works, sometimes it takes two sessions, sometimes it takes 20, sometimes it’s never fixed, and so I think it’s about having an honest conversation about what are our expectations, and I think having an honest conversation saying, just because we say ‘One Tribe, One Family’ doesn’t mean one perfect, happy family. No one wants a perfect family because that’s boring.”

Stottlemyer and other Board members thanked the students and staff members for their candor and caring.

“We know all of you or many of you well enough to know that these students are very much your children, and losing a student is the loss of your own child,” he said.

Stottlemyer, who shared during the meeting that he lost his sister to suicide, added that mental health and suicide are tough, complex issues and ones being grappled with nationwide.

“The way we honor Paul and others is to self-examine introspectively how can we do better and have that culture on campus that really is supportive, that’s authentic, that’s engaged around mental and physical health,” he said. “On behalf of the Board, this is not the end of the conversation.”