Let’s Talk about Sewanee’s mental healthcare structure

By MK Saye 
Executive Staff

According to a study published in early September by JAMA Network Open, the “prevalence of depression symptoms in the US was more than 3-fold higher during COVID-19 compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic.” For this reason, there has been an increase in the demand for proper mental healthcare in age groups both young and old. This pandemic has demanded much of 2020, and does not promise to go away any time soon.

2020 is also an election year, and no American is unaware of the weight this election carries in particular. Many around the country and the world are struggling to find or keep jobs along with confronting the fact that perhaps they can’t live as comfortably as they once did. It would be an understatement of comical proportions to say that we live in uncertainty.

“We’re all doing the best we can” is a phrase fitting to a time such as this. Visible signs of this are at work on Sewanee’s campus in initiatives such as the Roberson Project and the opening of the new Wellness Commons. One can agree that these are incredibly important and tangible steps forward into a better future for this university. But as the JAMA report suggests, mental healthcare is a necessity that requires sincere and direct attention. So, in this vital area, have we as a school and community risen to the occasion? 

In conversation with Sewanee’s Student Government Association (SGA) President, Ivana Porashka (C’21), she explained a two-fold approach that SGA usually uses to address issues: pressuring administration and/or through active dialogues such as the Let’s Talk campaign. However, this year no planning has been done yet to create a new Let’s Talk campaign because SGA senators have been overwhelmed tackling issues such as the drug policy and the multitude of concerns that COVID-19 imposes. This does not mean, however, that the mental welfare of students is not a concern for SGA. Porashka in fact admits that it’s affecting mental health of leaders that they can’t support a mental health event at this time. 

One way the student community has compensated for this is through events hosted by the Bairnwick Women’s Center (Wick) such as “Mental Health Matters.” This event, over Zoom, encouraged students to consider questions like “how are you genuinely doing?” The residents of the Wick house live together in the understanding that it’s important to “check in” with each other. In creating this event, Pressley Wilson (C’22) shared that “We in the house know we need that connection so we assume others need[ed] it too.” This year, the Wick has chosen the theme “rising with resiliency” and hopes to create events that are community centered — a characteristic especially important in combating the overwhelming sense of isolation COVID-19 has caused. 

Another way the Wick has helped concerning the mental welfare of students is by partnering with the new Peer Health House in running the student crisis hotline. The concept of the hotline isn’t new; and the Wick and Peer Health members are certainly prepared given their training sessions led by crisis professionals and frequent meetings with Title IX Coordinator Sylvia Gray. In an article published by the Purple two years ago, it questioned whether or not it was a good idea to have students play such “critical roles in supporting their peers.” While training is extensive and detailed, the volunteers who graciously run the hotline are college students too.

In the article, Sydney Leibfritz (C’20) shared that the major drawback to the student-led branch of mental healthcare on campus is that “none of us are really capable of being all that we need to be.” While it may be beneficial for students to talk through difficult things on this hotline with a peer, the responsibility of a serious crisis should not be put in the hands of another student. 

Alexis McKnight (C’22) shared that when she was considering Sewanee as a transfer student, she was under the impression that mental healthcare for students was a priority. However, in her own experiences with CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), she has found concerning inconsistencies with their services. After one semester of use, she was told that she could no longer use CAPS services and was recommended outside therapy options that were more expensive.

The CAPS page on the University website uses vague and confusing language to explain their process such as using “limited resources to make the greatest impact.” McKnight, in a more concise way, explained what the process felt like to her: “We’re going you help you get to this point, and then we’re just going to leave you.” She shared that she and her counselor had decided on some goals in the first two weeks and then had only focused on those. If something else had arisen, there would be a 5 minute conversation and then they would go back to the other issues. When dealing with mental illnesses, it’s “important to understand that they can play off of each other,” says McKnight. But with her counseling through CAPS, she felt that she could only work through one thing at a time because they were more concerned with progress rather than overall fulfillment. 

McKnight has been able to continue using services at the University, but only after a period in which she chose to silently attempt to cope because the counselors had given her the impression that she shouldn’t come back so soon because she had received help one semester already. Right now, the University website shows four counselors. Porashka imagines a future where there can not only be more counselors, but diversity present in their staff as well. However, quantity and diversity are just the beginning. It’s important for us to understand that mental healthcare needs time made for it, because no excuse is good enough to stand against the mental health needs of a person. 

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