In an email to the College on March 8, President Clayton Rose announced the start of Mental Health Moments, an initiative developed by mental health advocate Dr. Sally Thomas ’89 to address mental health in an accessible way by providing weekly, easily-digestible action steps for members of the College community.
Within two hours of Rose’s initial email, Celeste Hynes, assistant director of residential education and Peer Health faculty facilitator, sent the first Mental Health Moments installment on behalf of Peer Health, focused on the importance of sleep.
The initiative did not receive the feedback that Peer Health expected. Following its first installment, the Orient received and published an Op-Ed critiquing the College’s mental health support, and students expressed that the Mental Health Moments did not constitute a sufficient response to the conditions students were facing.
“They’re a good start, but I definitely don’t think they’re enough,” Mary Kretchmer ’21 said in a phone interview with the Orient.
Indeed, though excited by administrative support, Peer Health never intended for this initiative to receive the spotlight that it did when it appeared to some as the College’s solution to the issue of mental health. It was designed as a simple, supplemental collection of tips for students, faculty and staff to be able to absorb with minimal effort.
“This seemed like something that would be a small piece that we could bring to the community just to keep mental health on people’s minds, to make sure that it was something that people were thinking about as a small reminder, and that it might be able to give people some tips to be able to have some coping tools,” Hynes said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It got some positive feedback when I showed it to some of the Peer Health leaders—they thought that it might be something that felt reasonable for people to just look at quickly and, if they were interested, get a new tip.”
“Mental Health Moments is meant as a great additional resource that was obviously not meant to, or going to, create huge amounts of change,” Callie Burkhart ’21, a member of the Peer Health Leadership Core (PHLC), said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Many negative reactions came as an effect of Rose’s email. His official email on the matter signaled an administrative endorsement of the initiative as a solution to students’ calls for increased mental health support. However, College officials said that Rose’s email was meant to provide support for the program that would accompany other counseling and mental health-related programming at the College.
“The more we can put mental health issues in front of students, the better. The more we can give them the toolkit to find a sense of well-being, the better,” Janet Lohmann, senior vice president and dean for student affairs, said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It’s important to those of us who are at the College, and who are administrators, that the issues around students’ health and wellness, and their well-being, is critical. It’s one of the reasons why [Rose] wanted to do the message. He cares deeply for us, as I do, and it’s important that students know that.”
One of the factors contributing to some students’ strong responses to Mental Health Moments was the then-upcoming two-day spring break that, many argued, was not nearly enough time for the sole rest from a demanding academic schedule this semester. Because this initiative began at the same time as discussions ramped up surrounding the break, the initiative appeared to some as an administrative solution to calls for action from students—a symptom of poor timing and delivery.
“I think timing was a big reason for the reaction—the fact that it came out the week that the shortened spring break was leading up to,” Hynes said. “And I also think that we were excited that President Rose was going to promote it, but I think in hindsight, and something we didn’t think about, was that President Rose helping to promote it … was more implying that this is an administration-wide solution or strategic plan on mental health.”
The choice to use sleep as the topic of the first email exacerbated the initial response, as students were already frustrated because they felt they were not being given adequate time to rest.
“We purposely started with sleep as the first topic because some of them are very heavy, and we didn’t want people to be turned off by that. We started off with something that we thought was kind of easy for everyone to relate to,” Burkhart said. “But I think in hindsight people were feeling like, ‘okay, well this is kind of hypocritical. If professors are assigning us so much work in a semester [that] has been insane, why are you just telling us to sleep eight hours?’ I get that, you know, and we’re all students, too. We’re a student group trying to improve other students’ lives … At the end of the day we just really want to help in any way that we can.”
The administration is working to respond to concerns from students, faculty and staff about mental health support, welcoming feedback on its actions.
“People are tired and exhausted, and it’s fraught with lots of emotions, and sometimes I become the recipient of that, or other folks at the College become recipients of that. I take it in and make sense of it, but I also offer people grace in the process,” Lohmann said. “I still think [Mental Health Moments] is a good resource. I still think it can offer something to some students. But I also hear the feedback. I am mindful—I’m taking the feedback that students are exhausted. The two-day break felt really insufficient, and I recognize that we made that decision based on the best information we could have had at the time, so we are trying to find other ways to try to address wellness concerns.”
After responses from the first installment, Peer Health took two weeks off from sending Mental Health Matters emails in order to decide how to move forward appropriately. Now, the group hopes to continue the initiative in an effort to provide resources to the College as tools for addressing mental health.
“I want it to be clear that this is not the only mental health resource. It’s one of many on campus, and there’s lots of other options. If this thing isn’t going to help you, that’s totally okay,” Burkhart said. “But if it helps one person we’d rather be there than not.”