One of the benefits of being a columnist is that I can enjoy very earnest conversations, sometimes with complete strangers, under the guise of “writing an article about _____.” These conversations are extremely rewarding. No two stories are the same, and having to analyze and reconcile sometimes radically different, but equally inspirational, testimonies is an invigorating challenge. But the more students I interviewed about mental health at Columbia, the harder it became to ignore the common undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Columbia's administrative handling of mental health.
Going to Counseling and Psychological Services is a gamble, and most students seem unsatisfied with the result. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows just what kind of treatment they're going to get from Columbia—counseling at CPS is an amorphous, fluid concept, which is as unsatisfying as it sounds. Peter Sterne, a senior in Columbia College, said he contacted CPS casually because “therapy [is] good for mental health and a normal thing to do in New York.” But according to Sterne, the approach taken by CPS was unnervingly “clinical and diagnostic.” “I didn't like being thought of as a potential suicide risk instead of just a person who wanted to talk,” he said.
On the other hand, Matthew Soto, a sophomore in Columbia College, felt that his concerns “weren't being taken seriously” by CPS. The professional seeing him seemed dismissive, explaining away Soto's anxiety attacks with an “Oh, you're just in college.” The descriptions of CPS I've heard run the gamut from “cold” to “casual” to “awkward.”
CPS needs to define its purpose and methodology to the student body in unambiguous terms, and then it should conform its treatment to that stated methodology. Whatever system exists now—namely, the “call us and we'll arbitrarily find you a professional” approach—clearly isn't working. CPS needs to either match students to professionals more carefully on a case-by-case basis or just select one approach, then adhere to it. If that approach still doesn't fit a student's needs, a robust referral process could help decide a next step.
Once CPS clarifies its methodology, a whole host of administrative changes could be undertaken to alleviate the stress surrounding mental health concerns on campus. Consider, for example, the CPS office: It's closed on weekends. During the week, students may consider themselves too busy to seek an appointment—every minute (that is not spent browsing BuzzFeed) is indispensable. However, during the weekend, when—speaking from personal experience—stress seems to weigh most heavily on the mind, there is no Columbia-run outlet to turn to.
“Drop-in” offices around campus are also open only Monday through Friday. Moreover, their hours seem totally arbitrary, and the offices are illogically distributed. Why is the Nussbaum drop-in office, at 600 W. 113th St., open more often than the offices in Carman Hall and East Campus, despite Nussbaum's comparatively low student population? The current sparse distribution of offices ignores the reality of depression—that it often inspires apathy, immobilizing its victim. As such, the convenience of the trip to CPS may make the difference between seeking help and staying put. Distributing walk-in offices and hours more evenly across Columbia's dorms and scheduling even a few weekend hours would be the first steps in the right direction.
Another concern is Columbia's labyrinthine Health Services website, apparently designed to discourage students from using it. Important materials regarding CPS are spread across multiple navigation tabs, and the text of the site is wedged into an absurdly narrow block in the center of the page. Columbia would benefit from emulating Cornell's Health Services website, which aggregates all Counseling and Psychological Services pages in one place and prominently features contact information on every page.
Columbia's handling of housing for students struggling with mental health issues is also in desperate need of reform. The Office of Residential Programs is either blind or callously indifferent to the situations in which it puts struggling students. One student I spoke to was assigned a new roommate less than one week after returning to Columbia from a psych ward, eroding any sense of much-needed stability for him. Later, this student was shocked to learn that his new roommate was awaiting disciplinary action—according to the student, his room was being used as “temporary housing for alleged delinquent students on the verge of being kicked out of housing altogether.”
When these concerns were voiced to Scott D. Helfrich, associate director for the Office of Residential Programs, they were brushed off: “It's an empty bed to fill.” Nobody from housing made any attempt to facilitate the student's transition back to life at Columbia. “I felt more alienated than ever before, and consequently, housing made me even more lost, confused, and hopeless,” he said.
Moreover, housing does not prioritize students returning to Columbia after temporarily withdrawing, meaning that these students could be forced to resort to more expensive and isolated off-campus housing.
The recent furor over sexual assault has yielded a statement from President Bollinger and a slew of promises from other University officials. It's clear that Columbia students can act as powerful catalysts for change when there is a concerted effort. Over the years, we've seen countless stories about the abysmal mental health situation at Columbia. And yet, despite this recurring theme in our collective consciousness, very little seems to change. These proposals may be limited and imperfect, but I hope that they can be a part of the conversation that brings about sincere and productive change for Columbia's administrative handling of mental health.
Mikhail Klimentov is a Columbia College sophomore with prospective majors in computer science and political science. Humor Me runs alternate Wednesdays.
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