TCU Senate, administration host Mental Health Town Hall to address student wellbeing

Julie Ross, staff psychologist and director of CMHS, discusses off-campus counseling resources during Mental Health Town Hall, an event organized by the TCU Senate in Barnum 008 on Nov. 13, 2019. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

The Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate and the university administration co-hosted a town hall yesterday to address mental health policies on campus and allow students to discuss experiences of mental health and illness among the student body.

Deepen Goradia, chair of the TCU Senate Administration and Policy Committee, led a panel of university administrators and staff including University President Anthony Monaco, Executive Director of Health and Wellness Michelle Bowdler, Director of Mental Health Services Julie Ross, Associate Dean of Student Accessibility and Academic Resources Kirsten Behling, Interim Dean of Student Affairs Nancy Thompson, Dean of Student Life and Engagement Christopher Rossi and Interim University Chaplain Jennifer Peace. After the moderated panel discussion, Goradia fielded questions from the roughly 30 attendees.

Goradia prefaced the town hall by calling for students to treat the event as a “safe and welcoming place” for open and informal discussions about “sensitive topics” before introducing the panel members and giving the floor to Monaco and Peace for opening remarks.

Though the event was planned weeks in advance, according to Monaco, Monaco and Peace’s opening statements focused on addressing the recent death of Matthew Gesell, a first-year student.

“We’re very fortunate, I think, at Tufts to have a community that cares so much about wellbeing and supporting student mental health,” Monaco said in his opening remarks. “We recognize that as we gather tonight at this time the community is grieving over the loss of a student, and this loss touches all of us — students, faculty and staff.”

Peace reminded the audience that grief is natural and that it often takes time to heal, before explaining the sense of comfort she gains from her faith and encouraging the audience to seek out the things that make them feel more connected with their communities during difficult times.

“One of the most powerful sources of solace is really this sense of being woven into the fabric of a caring community,” she said.

Peace ended her remarks by reciting a poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry and inviting students to join her in a moment of silence for Gesell.

The panel discussion then focused more generally on mental health on campus and the policies and efforts in place to aid students. Monaco explained that mental health issues have increased in recent year: 70% of students surveyed leading up to the event reported that mental health issues made it more difficult for them to perform well academically within the last year. Monaco added that the number of students in acute mental health crises, including suffering from “suicidal ideation” or “self-harming behavior,” has risen as well. He also mentioned that an increasing number of students are coming to Tufts with long-established diagnoses of mental illness who are seeking continued care.

“It’s really impeding individuals from reaching the full potential during their time here,” he said.

Monaco said that this rise in mental illness and mental health awareness is happening across the country. He noted that at Tufts, 28% of undergraduate students are utilizing Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) while another 8% to 10% of students are currently seeking help from “outside services.”

In response to the rising demand for mental health care and awareness, Monaco explained that the university has taken certain steps, including launching a Mental Health Task Force in 2016, to evaluate its policies and services as they relate to undergraduate, graduate and professional students. He emphasized that the Boston campus now has on-site mental health counseling and that faculty and staff university-wide are receiving training to help guide students who might be suffering from mental health disorders.

Bowdler added that with her background in community health, she has taken a particular interest in mental illness prevention in addition to treatment in her role as the executive director of health and wellness at Tufts. Referencing an annual survey of students on topics of mental health, Bowdler emphasized that stigma on campus for receiving mental health care is low.

Bowdler also spoke about JED Campus, a national foundation helping colleges and universities to assess mental health and substance abuse policies, and The Haven at College, an on-campus outpatient substance abuse treatment program, and how mental illness and substance abuse often go hand in hand. She said that 25% to 40% of students are interested in activities on campus that are substance-free, and that 5% to 10% of students struggle to control their substance use.

Ross, the director of Counseling and Mental Health Services, also mentioned new university services, like telehealth counseling options from BetterHelp and iHope and increased access to care through a recently hired urgent care clinician who can meet with students when other clinicians are fully booked.

Behling and Peace added to the conversation by explaining how their services complement those provided by CMHS. Behling explained that as the associate dean of student accessibility and academic resources, she strives to promote a view of disability that includes mental illness as “another form of diversity of identity,” and that academic solutions are determined on an individual, student-by-student basis. At the University Chaplaincy, Peace explained that students of all backgrounds, religious or not, can take advantage of a wide range of services, including grief counseling.

“What we do in the Chaplaincy office to support students’ mental health and spiritual health is from a slightly different angle and paradigm than the counseling services,” Peace said. “We would work very closely with counseling services if we were, for example, talking to a student about the ways they’re processing the normal experience of grief in the wake of a loss, and we identify that maybe that’s going a little further than a typical grief process into some areas of anxiety or depression.”

After the discussion among the panel members, Goradia devoted the remaining 30 minutes to addressing student questions and suggestions through both pre-collected comments and those from the audience. During this time, Rossi emphasized that the Student Affairs Office has three funds to allow students the flexibility to respond to unexpected emergencies.

Bowdler explained that student advocacy helped changed the old university tuition insurance plan, which was not created by the university, so that students taking leaves of absence for medical and mental health reasons receive the same tuition reduction — before, students taking a medical leave could receive a 90% tuition return, while students taking a mental health leave could only receive a 70% return.

Students also voiced their opinions on the importance of a diverse CMHS staff and mental health awareness and emergency training for the Tufts University Police Department, both of which administrators and staff on the panel assured were a priority.