Op-ed: An open letter to the Tufts community concerning student mental health

Dear University President Anthony Monaco, Provost and Senior Vice President Nadine Aubry, Dean of the School of Engineering Jianmin Qu, Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarríbar, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Robert Cook, Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Rob Mack and members of the Tufts community,

Over the past five months, I have appreciated the university’s leadership in planning for the physical reopening of our campus and the health and safety of community members. However, I believe that we are facing a looming and unaddressed crisis in students’ mental health.

After working with students this summer, I witnessed first-hand the stress and anxiety students are experiencing as they grapple with a racial and global health pandemic. Surveys identified a rise in depression, stress and anxiety when campuses closed last spring. As students struggle with isolation, repeated exposure to racial trauma, economic hardship, technological challenges and barriers to accessing mental health support, mental health needs have increased, especially among Black and Latinx youth. Additionally, students face the academic pressures of fall classes and the stress of trying to complete academic work off campus without adequate technological resources and in spaces not conducive to learning. At Tufts, white supremacy and racism are still infused throughout the university. Even with new attention to anti-racist policies and practices, until these are fully implemented, the prevailing structures will deeply impact mental health and learning, placing further undue stress on historically marginalized students.

With canceled athletic programs, limits on social gatherings, distancing in dining halls, restrictions on in-person meetings for clubs and reduced access to gym facilities, studios and libraries, students are returning to campus without their usual outlets for managing stress and connecting with others. Students attending college remotely and international students unable to enter the U.S. may feel particularly isolated.

The fact that students will continue to struggle with increased mental health needs this fall should come as no surprise to university administrators. While the university created the Mental Health Task Force in 2016 and the Steering Committee on Student Mental Health last fall, the recommendations released by the task force need both revision and re-attention. Although Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) has increased support and broadened its capacity for individual counseling, CMHS cannot be the only solution to student mental health needs.

Just as we look far beyond Health Service to address COVID-19 on campus, the current mental health crisis demands a university-wide approach that integrates efforts across programs and departments and prepares all members of the community to recognize and support students’ mental health needs. Mental health must be addressed in academic, extracurricular, athletic and residential settings and by all members of the community. Student mental health, like any public health issue, requires community-wide education, open conversation and a shifting of norms. If this moment has taught us nothing else, it is that we must confront difficult topics head-on before they ignite into a larger crisis that we are unable to contain. There is still time and there are steps that we can take right now to support the psychological wellbeing of our students.

The first step is to anticipate this crisis in mental health and to mobilize the support systems already in place on campus. Tufts should utilize its Steering Committee on Student Mental Health and prioritize the voices of student representatives. The Steering Committee should also make data from surveys about students’ mental health needs public and continue to monitor student needs throughout the school year. Critical components of this committee should include normalizing behaviors that educate all community members about mental health and encouraging all members of the community to seek out mental health support when needed. Beyond the Steering Committee, there should be a clearer chain of command that outlines the specific roles of different mental health services and providers on campus. Across all departments, Tufts should more clearly communicate what mental health resources are available to members of its community and create clear protocols about what to do when concerned about another person’s mental wellbeing.

The university must also prioritize the needs of students of color, members of the community who may feel marginalized, students with significant economic need, students with previous mental health challenges and students with disabilities by removing barriers that may currently prevent them from accessing mental health support. Tufts should work to increase communication and collaboration with the various centers and services students already seek out, such as the Africana Center, the FIRST Center and Student Accessibility Services, ensuring that these spaces have the staffing and resources required to tend to the needs of students living on and off campus. Online individual counseling must be available to all students through CMHS long term, with opportunities for students to request counselors who share their social or racial identities.

Secondly, we need to deeply invest in strategies that build community and amplify students’ strengths and resilience. In the broadest sense, this can be implemented on a college-wide level that invites members across the entire community to engage with others, such as in community-wide town halls, events featuring invited speakers, online screenings of films with subsequent discussions, workshops, celebrations, memorials and meaningful ceremonies. 

Maintaining connections with others despite physical distancing is critical to community building. Every team, club, organization and department should be charged with the task of creating online pathways for community building. Despite not being able to practice in person, sports teams can still sponsor virtual study halls, post workout strategies designed for small spaces or use online tools to observe athletic technique. Clubs can continue to invite members to discuss relevant issues in an online space or take action through online advocacy, such as through a virtual voter registration drive. Academic departments can hold virtual social hours, and individual faculty members should continue to hold online office hours. Campus religious organizations can host online worship or spiritual discussion groups. Using virtual spaces such as Instagram or Twitter, Tufts could create a hashtag and ask students to post photos or stories that build community. Creating a safe and equitable community is paramount to increasing students’ sense of belonging and emotional capacities in this challenging time.

Faculty and staff working with students should be required to enroll in the Kognito modules for recognizing at-risk students and opening conversations about mental health. In addition, all faculty and staff should be trained in trauma-sensitive practices and anti-racist teaching. While the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching is an excellent resource for this training, it is often only faculty who are already deeply invested in advocating for students that attend these workshops. Resources for staff and faculty to manage the stress and anxieties of uncertainty and racial trauma should also be made available.

Providing a multi-tiered system of mental health supports will be critical. All students should have access to information about mindfulness, stress reduction, self-care and coping. Faculty and staff need to continually assess students’ wellbeing, whether formally or informally, and adapt to meet their emergent needs. The university should consider ways to provide mental health screenings, such as mental health screenings that would accompany routine COVID-19 testing. Tufts could also implement relationship mapping, in which administrators ensure that every student has at least one connection with a faculty or staff member. Peer leaders can also contribute by monitoring a crisis line, such as Ears for Peers, providing mentoring, establishing community norms around mental health or providing information about mental health resources. As a second tier, we can offer targeted support to students from marginalized populations and students struggling to manage stress, such as through online affinity or support groups that meet on a routine basis.

Finally, we need to reexamine the academic policies and practices that increase stress for students. Trauma not only impacts students’ physical and emotional wellbeing but also impacts academic performance, disrupting students’ concentration, focus and ability to initiate academic work. In light of this, reducing course loads, streamlining what students need to learn and implementing anti-racist and trauma-informed practices in classrooms are all methods of supporting student mental health and wellbeing. While Tufts’ decision to support optional Exceptional Pass/Fail grading this semester significantly helps students in this unprecedented time, Tufts faculty and the Educational Policy Committee need to reexamine policies surrounding attendance, course withdrawal deadlines and virtual methods of participating in courses and assessments. Additionally, community members have already highlighted the critical need to examine the role and function of Tufts University Police Department and the ways in which the racial bias of police responses can be traumatizing for students.

This is not the time for silence or inaction. The only path forward is for Tufts to turn attention toward, not away from, the myriad of mental health needs students will carry with them as they return to classrooms this fall. While some of these strategies may already be in place, allocating more resources to a centralized task force and increasing communication and collaboration are critical in building a community-wide response to student mental health.

Erin Seaton, Senior Lecturer

Department of Education