Mental Health Task Force continues to assess student mental health

The Counseling and Mental Health Services Building is pictured. Anika Agarwal / The Tufts Daily

The Mental Health Task Force, launched in the fall of 2016, is continuing to evaluate and address the state of student mental health across the university by considering student input and evaluating university policies and resources.

Starting about four years ago, Tufts saw an increase in the number of students visiting Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS), according to Jacklyn Varela, project administrator for the Office of the President and lead staff member supporting the task force.

“On the Medford/Somerville campus, there was a 25% increase last year in students accessing our mental health services,” Varela told the Daily in an email. “We conduct a survey every two years called the Healthy Minds Survey, and that data was also indicating increased need.”

The task force was formed in response to increased national awareness of mental health issues’ impact on college students, according to the website of the Office of the President.

There are four subgroups within the task force, including the full task force and three working groups: one focusing on undergraduate students (UWG), one focusing on students in the graduate and professional schools (GPWG), and the Models of Care group focused on clinical services related to mental health, according to Varela.

“Each working group has developed its own approach depending on the critical needs it has identified and the date available,” Varela said in an email.

Mary Pat McMahon, Dean of Student Affairs and chair of the Models of Care task group, said that one of the main goals of the task force is to assess what resources and services Tufts already has in place and to address what might help improve these services.

“[Our goal is to] raise awareness of the ongoing efforts to create the healthiest possible environment for Tufts students at the graduate and undergraduate level, [and] to examine and identify possible ways we can enhance our efforts to create a holistically healthy campus,” McMahon said.

There are multiple ways the task force collects student input, including an online form for students to submit input and listening sessions where members of the task force have met with students to hear their concerns. The UWG, co-chaired by Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs at the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering Raymond Ou and Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Advising at the School of Engineering Jennifer Stephan, has held a total of ten listening sessions.

“There were two listening sessions that were general and not targeted at any specific student group. For the other sessions there was more intensive outreach … toward specific communities including international students, SMFA, engineering, low-income and [first-generation] students, and communities represented by each of the Group of Six,” Ou and Stephan told the Daily in an email.

According to Ou and Stephan, task force members also attended meetings of several student organizations and conducted private interviews with individual students in order to solicit input on student mental health.

The task force wanted to make sure to collect input from a variety of student populations to get a complete picture of student mental health, McMahon said.

“One of the things we want to make sure we think about is where are there places where multiple identities are converging, creating unseen narratives around how one’s mental health is impacted,” McMahon said.

John Matias, Associate Dean of Admissions and Enrollment and Student Affairs at the Tufts School of Medicine and chair of the GPWG, said that his working group held more than 15 listening sessions with students at the Boston, Grafton and Medford campuses.

After conducting listening sessions at the undergraduate level, Ou and Stephan concluded that students were particularly interested in Tufts’ policies and practices regarding mental health, and so the UWG chose to focus on a thorough review of relevant policies.

“For the past several months the working group has focused on this work and engaging academic and administrative stakeholders to explore opportunities for potential policy changes,” Ou and Stephan said in an email.

Ou and Stephan hope to continue to engage with students in an upcoming town hall held in conjunction with the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, which is being coordinated by TCU Senators Grant Gebetsberger, Sharif Hamidi, Rebeca Becdach and Janey Litvin, all first-years.

The town hall will consist of a panel including McMahon, Executive Director of Health and Wellness Michelle Bowdler, a representative counselor from CMHS and representatives from student groups, according to Litvin.

“It would be about thirty minutes of them presenting on what Tufts has to offer, services that people might not know about, where they see the current standing of mental health on this campus, how they think changes could be made in the future,” Litvin said. “The next hour would be a discussion between the panel and students, who could give feedback and suggestions, and really just make the administration more aware of our issues.”

Litvin says she hopes the town hall will produce suggestions on what the administration can do to improve, and also help to make students more aware of resources that are available.

According to McMahon, the town hall will be a good way to offer up some of the task force’s proposed changes and get student feedback, which is the ultimate goal of the task force.

“Getting a better understanding of how our current campus environment is supportive of holistic student health is an ongoing, iterative process. We are always going to address and partner with students to think as comprehensively and inclusively as we can about student well-being,” McMahon said. “Any kind of student input is always going to be helpful.”