Editorial: Swarthmore Should Prioritize Mental Health

On September 13, President Valerie Smith shared the results of a report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Wellbeing, Belonging, and Social Life to the community in a campus-wide email.  In the opinion of the Editorial Board, this report by the Ad Hoc Committee failed to adequately address the wellbeing of Swarthmore students, despite that being its charge.

The report is divided into six subcategories — one of which is entitled “Wellness and Self-Care.” This section is extremely important to students on campus and is one that is often neglected. Despite the necessity of dialogue around this issue, this section is only three sentences long. As the report continues, it does come back to this category, discussing practices the committee finds promising as well as future initiatives. The concepts discussed are things like extending Matchbox hours, breaks, SEPTA tickets, pop-up patios, self-care social media campaigns, and using the Arboretum as a wellness space.

What is most alarming about this section is that it fails to discuss mental health whatsoever. In fact, the words ‘mental health’ are mentioned once in the entire report — in the form of a focus group question discussing mental health days. CAPS is also mentioned only once in the report, in Appendix B: Key Institutional Partners. It is the fifth one listed. While breaks and wellness spaces can contribute to improving the wellbeing of students on campus, they are no substitute for therapy and psychiatry.

Students’ mental health should be a priority of this institution. Mental health is not only integral to students’ overall wellbeing, but also affects every other aspects of students lives. Academics, work, and physical health are all inextricably linked to students’ mental health. If this report was focused on the wellbeing of students as it claims to be, there would be discussion of the difficulties of getting CAPS appointments, the lack of diversity in background and specialization of counselors, and finally, the high turnover rates of counselors. Additionally, there would be discussion of the consequent costs of getting treatment elsewhere, as students who can afford to have had to do, while those who cannot work with treatment unsuited to their needs and identities. We commend the CAPS staff for their hard work and effort, and acknowledge their hiring of more counselors and expansion into Bond Hall. We also acknowledge their desire to meet the needs of students. We call on the institution to support them effectively.

In the spring of 2016, the Self Study Action Committee was commissioned to recommend to President Smith changes the college should act upon. This report was borne out of the campus discontent in 2013 and was produced using the results of an external review of the college conducted by the consulting firm Rankin and Associates. One of the five recommendations of the SSAC was “Commitment to Diverse and Accessible Mental Health Care for All Members of Our Community.”

“In order to create a supportive environment, a community must promote holistic wellness and provide reliable support systems accessible to all. Mental health care is an important facet of such community wellness,” stated the report.

The SSAC report indicates that Swarthmore declared mental health care to be a priority and a commitment of the institution. The Ad Hoc committee report, in contrast, suggests that Swarthmore has forgotten to follow through with that commitment in any substantive way. Fluffy rhetoric around self care is no replacement for accessible and diverse mental health care. “Dialogue” only goes so far. Action goes farther. Deliver on your commitments, Swarthmore.

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