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Students talk mental health at town hall

Organized by Project LETS, town hall part of Disability Justice Day of Action for Mental Health

At a mental health town hall yesterday, five student panelists praised reforms to mental health and disability services on campus while also vocalizing their discontent with a continued lack of transparency and systemic limits to resource accessibility. Students shared their stories as part of a larger nationwide event called the Disability Justice Day of Action for Mental Health, which also took place at Yale, Columbia and Bergen Community College, among others.

Most of the panelists described mixed experiences with on-campus resources, ranging from positive and invaluable to baffling and debilitating. “I still encourage people to use resources. I think we should use them, but also critique them when they’re not okay,” said Valentina Cano ’19, echoing a theme of the nearly two-hour conversation.

The town hall, which took place in Barus and Holley, was organized by Project LETS, a student-run organization that coordinates a peer mental health advocacy program and provides mental health education on campus. Shivani Nishar ’20, program coordinator for Project LETS and incoming wellness chair for the Undergraduate Council of Students, and Anna Harvey ’20, the mental health advocacy group’s storytelling coordinator, moderated the discussion. Several University administrators were invited to attend the event, as the coordinators aimed to “facilitate better connection between administrators and students, as we find there is not a lot of dialogue that happens between the two,” Nishar said.

Much of the conversation centered around medical leave and involuntary hospitalization and treatment.

Vanessa Garcia ’19.5 took two medical leaves during her first two years at Brown. “The heartbreaking part about my leaves (was that) I thought I was dropping out. It was a really intense feeling,” she said. But she returned, in part because she “just had so many connections that were drawing me back.”

When Garcia applied to return from her medical leave, her application was denied. She was forced to appeal the decision, and while she did win her appeal, she was frustrated by the lack of transparency surrounding the process. But the University has “done a lot of great work” improving the process since her experience, she said.

An anonymous audience member texted the moderators to ask panelists about times they thought they would not return from medical leave and how they overcame those moments. “It’s okay if your leave takes you longer than you thought it would, or even if you have to come back and then leave again,” Cano said, adding that she has taken a year off during her time at the University.

Mireya Gonzalez ’20, an American studies concentrator with a focus on medicine and disability studies, took a year off for medical leave and has experienced both voluntary and involuntary hospitalization. Matthew Flathers ’19 has received both voluntary and involuntary treatments, while Charlie Steinman ’20 was forced to talk with a dean after having two encounters with Emergency Medical Services in one weekend.

“I definitely didn’t want to go on leave” when police officers and EMS presented that as an option, Steinman said. “Having to prove over and over again that you’re okay when you’re not” in order to avoid forced leave or forced treatment “is just really exhausting,” he added. “There needs to be a way to be honest about your condition” without being threatened with leave or being forced to change academic plans, Steinman said. Audience members and fellow panelists snapped and nodded in affirmation.

Towards the end of the event, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Will Meek, who was present in the audience, responded to questions about involuntary hospitalization. “It’s something that we have to do under certain conditions” in part because of state laws, “but we’re trying to do everything we can to create a layer of safety” and “prevent an unnecessary trip to the hospital,” he said.

When the moderators asked panelists to discuss their experiences with resources on campus, proclamations of gratitude rang out for the work of Project LETS and Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center.

“All the people I’ve met, for the most part, have been really awesome, wonderful people who want to help me, but for a long time, I didn’t know what the resources are or how to use the resources or the context in which the resources could be forced upon me. … LETS is what stopped me from leaving Brown because I thought I couldn’t handle it here,” Flathers said.

Cano also expressed both appreciation for available resources and concerns about access. After finding that a reduced three-class course load vastly improved her life at Brown, she met with someone in the office of Student and Employee Accessibility Services who introduced her to the tuition adjustment program, which would allow her to take three courses per semester over nine semesters without suffering undue financial burden. Without his help, she would not have known about the tuition adjustment program, she said. “It’s hard to do certain things if you don’t have the resources,” Cano said, adding that would love to see increased access to and transparency about programs like tuition adjustment.

Over the last few years, reforms of various mental health and disability services on campus have addressed student concerns by removing the seven-session limit for CAPS and increasing the number of service providers from historically underrepresented groups, among other changes, The Herald previously reported. But student understanding of the resources available from SEAS and CAPS are built upon “years of bad experiences,” Flathers said, calling for CAPS to increase transparency about changes.

Steinman concurred. “I know things have changed at CAPS, but it’s hard for me to figure out exactly what those things are,” he said.

Nishar also shared a similar sentiment, praising recent change while calling for further action. “I wanted to speak to the increasingly diverse staff that we have at CAPS,” she said, adding that “as someone whose mental health is super influenced by my identity as a South Asian woman, that has been super critical for me. … (But) we need to see that in other departments also, especially Health Services.”

While the town hall discussion delved into Brown-specific stories, yesterday’s day of action centered on a list of shared demands for improving mental health and disability access on college campuses across the country. Those demands included increased transparency about the effectiveness of mental health care services, support for students on psychiatric leave, the creation of crisis services separate from public safety and police forces, training for professors on accommodations and a public release of crisis policies, among others, according to the day of action’s website.

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