Tell Bwog your problems.

Tell Bwog your problems.

The Columbia University Mental Health Task Force (MHTF)—a group aimed at reviewing and reforming Columbia’s mental health policies—held its first open forum of the semester last night.  Freud Fanatic Eric Cohn attended and brings us a review.

Last night brought the first Open Forum of the Columbia University Mental Health Task Force (MHTF)—formed last year to address concerns with Columbia’s leave of absence policy.  It has since expanded its focus to include a variety of campus mental health issues.  The forum provided students the opportunity to voice their concerns about mental health resources, policies, and procedures at Columbia.  Attendees were encouraged to share personal experiences and suggestions in order to formulate a list of long and short-term goals for MHTF to present to administrators.

CCSC VP Policy Sejal Singh, CC ’15 and CC University Senator Ramis Wadood, CC ’16 commenced the forum after the tardy arrival of the much-awaited pizzas and some additional idle delay—presumably to wait for more people to come.  But the numbers, despite Facebook advertisements and coverage by respected campus news sources, did not exceed scant, and the event had to go on.

MHTF has already accomplished a great deal.  They helped revise the medical leave of absence policy, which now allows students to take between one and four semesters off.  Previously, students had to take at least one year off for medical leave.  The task force has also gotten Columbia to add disability testing for ADD and learning disabilities to the special health fund.

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done.  The quality of life survey taken by undergraduate and graduate students two years ago revealed a distressingly low satisfaction rate with Columbia Psychological Services among LGBTQ students and students of color.  Part of the problem is that there are currently no people of color on the CPS staff, and the only male LGBTQ staff member will be leaving soon.  Many students at the forum expressed their concern that CPS is not trained to deal with issues affecting LGBTQ students.

One of the other common concerns among participants at the forum was the long wait times for appointments at CPS, and the overall labor involved with setting up appointments.  Under the current system, students call CPS to arrange a phone triage, which occurs an average of 5.67 days later, according to the task force.  It can then take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for people to schedule a followup session—even for a serious concern.  Part of the issue is simply the numbers: CPS does not have enough staff to address student concerns in a timely manner.  CPS told MHTF that they do not have the funding or space to house additional staff.

Many students at the forum called the phone triage system “traumatic”—the questions of the mysterious diagnostician on the other end of the line were too prying, and the fact that it was over the phone made the whole experience devoid of empathy and hollow.  One student voiced that she felt far worse after the call than she did beforehand.  She suggested an electronic triage system, which seems much more sensible.  Ari Schuman, CC ’15 and member of MHTF, told us that the triage system is in place partially to assess whether a caller is suicidal.  CPS has told MHTF that they are open to reforming the phone system, but it’s unclear whether they are willing to scrap it all together.

Katherine Celentano, GS University Senator, identified drop-in hours as a significant issue for GS students living off campus.  Drop-in services are located primarily in buildings that require swipe access: Carman, Hartley, EC, Broadway, Nussbaum, the IRC, and Jerome Greene Hall for law school students.  This poses a problem for students without swipe access, who need to get signed in to access these services.  These locations, in many cases, also lack an adequately private waiting space, which made one forum attendee “uncomfortable.”  Singh and Schuman told us that they are working to find new locations for drop-in hours, possibly in Butler.  For me, the possibility of drop-in hours in Butler are worrisome, given the variety of stressors associated with Butler.  I am not sure whether Butler is the best place to promote positive mental health, and Schuman acknowledged that this might be a concern.

When I attended CPS nearly two years ago, I was told that I had a maximum of ten sessions for the semester.  I was disturbed to find out that this was essentially a lie—there is not and has never been a cap to CPS visits.  In fact, CPS just released a policy firmly expressing that they do not have a cap—essentially in order to combat these false rumors.  But CPS staff still do not seem to be aware of this policy—or, rather, non-policy—as forum attendees again and again shared that CPS had warned them of a cap for visits.  The task force expressed their commitment to increase communication among CPS staff and to make sure that caps are not enforced.  (It should be noted, however, that Furman does cap their visits at eight per year, which Singh identified as “a serious problem.”)

Other goals identified at the forum include:

  • Hiring clinicians with missing identities, especially queer people and people of color
  • Increasing staff and space for CPS
  • Better matching CPS staffers to students’ needs
  • Creating a standard for outside referrals
  • Diminishing the push for survivors of sexual assault to go on medical leave
  • Instating training for the staff involved in phone triage

In addition, the task force has held talks with Chaplain Davis to address inclusion of racial and religious minorities in CPS staff.  CPS has also been working on “basic sensitivity” training for all CPS staff on intersectionality and minority identities.  This happened over the summer, and a follow-up session is scheduled for November.

After the large group discussion, which lasted around 45 minutes, the forum broke down into four focus groups led by members of the task force.  I joined the one centered around CPS, Furman, and other psychological services; and I included information I gleaned from this session above.  The other focus groups centered around identity-based concerns, disability services, and “everything else.”  This portion of the forum lasted another 45 minutes, and was very effective at allowing students the space to voice their concerns, and the members of MHTF seemed very receptive to the range of issues raised here.

Overall, the forum gave me a more informed and critical view of CPS.  I was struck by students’ numerous tales of ineptitude and inadequacy among the mental health services at Columbia.  I encourage anyone interested in reforming these systems to attend the next open forum on October 17.  The task force was incredibly receptive and empathic in their leading of the forum, and the changes they have already made to Columbia policy are indicative of the great work they can do with our help.

Bwog as therapist via Shutterstock