MCI: You have just co-authored a paper on Mental Health on College Campuses, which I read last week. It is a terrific resource and provides great direction. Is this evidence that your interest and concern about student mental health has grown over the past few years? Has it become a higher priority for you as president?
EB: There’s no question, it is one of the top priorities for me as a president. And I think most college presidents would tell you this. What keeps you awake at night? Students’ mental health.
MCI: Your paper provides a comprehensive assessment of the current situation in terms of the prevalence numbers, which are concerning, the barriers that exist generally, and specifically for student population groups. So from a president’s perspective, what concerns you the most given what you’ve just learned?
EB: I think what concerns me the most as a president is that students’ mental health, if not attended to, can really hold them back from learning and from flourishing. And if our goal is to create a group of young adults who are able to go out into the world, thrive, flourish, help other people thrive and flourish, we have to be attending to their mental health. We don’t spend the time on it and I don’t think we can call ourselves the best colleges if we don’t attend to this piece.
MCI: You talk about college life as both a stressor for many students, but also an opportunity to use these years to really focus on student well-being. Now, particularly given your background in public health, this involves population-based work and preventative work. What strategies do you think are working in that area? And also, are we thinking enough about that?
EB: Those are absolutely great questions – what works and are we even thinking about that enough? I think what happens on college campuses is there is a very heavy focus on what’s going to happen in the classroom, and there’s often less focus, or less judicial focus, about what’s happening outside the classroom. But in truth, the classroom itself doesn’t take up as much time. When you really think about a college student, it’s mostly how they manage their own lives, their intellectual lives, their emotional lives, their social lives. Taking a look at beyond the classroom is very important to bringing about a truly educated young adult who knows how to take care of themselves.
What does that mean? I think one of the first things it means is we have to take the stance of what I would call a public health approach to mental health which is different than a clinical approach to mental health. A public health approach says we could create an environment in which people are able to have strong, healthy relationships; in which they’re able to manage their stressors; in which they’re able to have effective mental health. One has to think about the entire context, how we match people to roommates, how we manage athletic teams, how we create good governance and transparent leadership on campus, how we manage disagreements.
If you’re having a strong intellectual discourse on campus, which we all do have and want to have, you’re going to have feelings around that strong intellectual discourse. How are you managing that? How are you creating the words and the ability, and the practices in the administration, in the faculty, in the student leaders to be able to say, “Yeah, that was a tough conversation. Let’s stay at the table and talk more,” rather than, “That was a tough conversation, and now I feel totally isolated and my mental health is not good.”
That attention to culture, that’s what is really paramount. What we often do instead – and it makes sense because we’re in a crisis situation – we focus heavily on the clinical side. “Be sure you have enough therapists,” or “Be sure you have enough physicians, psychiatrists, you can get the medications.” All of that is critical. There is no question, but we have to have both; we have to have the clinical resources, but we must look upstream to the public health resources as well.
“Taking a look at beyond the classroom is very important to bringing about a truly educated young adult who knows how to take care of themselves.”
MCI: And would you say that that’s particularly true as you think about the different stressors and the unique mental health needs of sub-population groups? Black students, first generation students, the LGBTQIA+ community?
EB: One of the greatest things about a college campus is its diversity. And when you think about a young adult’s experience coming to college, it is probably the first time that they have lived with a group that is completely different than who they are. No matter where they come from, you are going to go to a college and there are going to be people from different parts of the world, different parts of the country, with different religions, different race ethnicities, different wealth.
Maybe they have parents that went to college or didn’t go to college. All of a sudden, you’re living in diversity. And when you think about the United States at least, go by zip code, we’re not that diverse. We’re diverse as a country, but people really sort sadly into zip codes based on race, ethnicity, based on wealth, etc. So this is the opportunity. This is the four years when you are forced to be with each other and to learn how to live in a way we call engaged pluralism, where you are pluralistic and engaged, not assimilating people to one way of living, and not segregating people in their own little groups, but rather be pluralistic and be engaged.
That is really a great vision for creating a young adult who can create that kind of society subsequently. Unfortunately, it is super hard and what is very difficult about it is for sub-groups who come to campus feeling as if, “I don’t belong. My parents didn’t go to college. don’t have a car of my own. I’ve never eaten this kind of food before. I don’t really speak that language as my first language. I never played athletics before.”
All of those things can be associated with being the first one in your family to go to college, or coming from a different part of the country, or coming from a different part of the world, or really just having very few financial resources. You may have tremendous cultural resources, but few financial resources and that really puts people at risk for not feeling engaged pluralistically, feeling isolated, alone, unsupported and without a social network around them. This absolutely bears out in the research, students who are first generation, students who are low income, students of color, students who are transitioning their gender or sexuality, LGBTQIA+. They are at higher risk for having mental health conditions in college.
And we also need to recognize they are at high risk for not seeking help. Why? It’s not because they don’t need it. It’s because it’s not what they are used to doing. It’s scary to go seek help. So I think it behooves the college If we are going to really have this vision of engaged pluralism, we have to meet people where they are. We have to design services, residential life support services, counseling services, orientation, our academics need to be trained on this, to recognize difference and understand that each person, depending on their background, is going to experience the college differently, might need more supports in certain areas, while those people are able to give us supports in other areas.
MCI: When you and I had a conversation before, you were talking about the problem of being too siloed on campus, or assuming that the accountability for this kind of work is with one department or group. That’s sounds like something you’ve been thinking a lot about.
EB: Yeah. Well, I think the culture and the community, and the sense of belonging on campus is everybody’s job. That is kind of the definition of culture. It’s our shared experiences and how we feel about them. And so, there’s no role that doesn’t play a part in that. And imagine if you could create a campus in which, as people came onto it, whether they’re employees or students, they looked around at the artifacts, they looked around at how people are behaving, what the rules are, etc., even the physical plant. And they said, “Wow, I feel like I belong here. I feel like they’ll care for me here. I feel like they will. When I leave here, I’m going to be prepared to thrive in the world.”
So that’s really what we’re trying to do. We know, to allow the proper learning, the engaged pluralistic learning, we know we have to protect and promote people’s mental health. And therefore, we work on that. It’s a means to the larger end, which is about education and learning. That’s our mission. I think what can happen in organizations is you can forget sort of what the main purpose is, and start to build many extra and maybe not even evidence-based services that ultimately can backfire because if you get too clinically oriented or too risk averse, too focused on all the tactics of what one can do for mental health, without keeping the big picture in mind, you’ve created a lot of costs.
You might not have actually formulated those programs to be evidence-based and driven by what students say they need, but more driven by a profession growing up saying, “This is what people need,” and you can really waste a lot of resources and make a mess. So, I think two of the important things is keep the goal in mind that it’s really about education, and drive it from what the individuals who you’re trying to help and support say they need. And that’s hard to do. It’s very inclusive. It’s very student-based. It’s really listening to things that sometimes as an administrator, you might not at first understand.
MCI: Do you have any theories about the sources of the problems students are reporting – particularly anxiety and depression?
EB: I think there are a myriad, in terms of theories, about what’s going on with young people today. There are a myriad of exposures that are different than we had 30 years ago, and it’s been steadily increasing. So obviously, one tremendous shift has been the normalization of mental health issues. Today, for a student, at least on Vassar’s campus, to walk into the counseling center carries really very little stigma. People talk about their therapists all the time, talk about depression and anxiety. They talk about suicide ideation. This is a speak-able topic, whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was a lot of stigma around getting help. So some of this is kind of the normalization, and I think that’s nothing but good, that allows people to actually get the help they need. So that’s one piece of it.
I think another piece of it, is the very high risks of communication today. Before the internet and before social media, you could communicate something that someone else really didn’t like you for and that’s where it would die. Maybe you broke a friendship. Today, you communicate something that’s not appreciated, and that could be read by 10,000 of your friends in 20 minutes. More, it could eventually be viral. It could be seen by millions of people.
That level of risk in communication, who wouldn’t be anxious, living in a world like that? The safety to be able to experiment has evaporated to some degree. So, I think that is a tremendous, tremendous shift. And then there’s the tremendous challenges we have with the inequities across our globe and in our country. The economic inequities alongside the terror coming around with the climate emergency. These are really exposures that are larger than any campus, that I think frame how nervous – and it’s not just students – and potentially depressed people are in the more generalized area.
The big question is what are we doing about that? I think one thing we do is we create a curriculum that responds to today’s problems. We have many courses that are about racial inequity, that are about economic inequity, climate change classes, not just in one department, but across the curriculum. People can bring some cognitive skills to tackling these large global issues and feeling more like maybe they can do something about it.
We are also trying to make “speak-able” what it is to, I’ll use the word, “cancel” somebody on social media. Let’s talk about that. Let’s make that something that a small group of people can get together and really talk about restoring and restorative practices. And those are all really difficult, but what great skills for young people to learn. I think people my age could have learned that when we were younger and the world would only be a better place. So, I remain still hopeful about our future.