I was among the 100 students at the Town Hall meeting hosted by Greater Than last Tuesday concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the upcoming changes to current mental health resources on campus. This Town Hall meeting was different than meetings in the past. For many students, the talk of outsourcing Boe House struck a personal chord. Students were not there passively to listen or observe. Rather, they were there with a fervent desire for answers, and rightfully so. By sharing personal, vulnerable stories, individuals communicated the severity, fear and relevance of this conversation to the community.
For those of you who were unable to be at the meeting, here is what we know now: The mental health of students on campus is progressively declining, as evidenced by the increasing demand for services at Boe House, the on-campus confidential resource for students seeking help from a professional counselor. Many desperate students are left waiting months to receive help. This is a serious and dangerous problem because, as a student at the meeting stated, “if you need it, you need it immediately.”
The purpose of the meeting was to address a potential outsourcing of Boe House to Allina Health. According to Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Janet Hanson, this outsourcing would widen the access of professional counselors and psychiatrists available for students.
As of last Tuesday, the administrative members leading the conversation were still waiting for a report from Allina Health that would address the ways in which students’ accessibility could change if Allina were to assume operations. I think it is essential to ask which students these services will become more accessible to. Outsourcing to Allina Health opens the potential of linking mental health resources to insurance coverage. In my experience, and as brought up by several other students at the meeting, not all insurance plans, including the St. Olaf College health insurance, provide the greatest coverage. Many students are concerned that those who are able to afford better insurance plans would be the only ones with improved access, leaving others with expensive co-pays that make getting professional help next to impossible.
Among the students fearing inadequate accessibility are international students. According to students at the meeting, St. Olaf College health insurance for many international students is very expensive, causing these students to seek other cheaper insurance plans with less coverage. Students are curious about what the school would do for students who cannot afford the copay.
It is important to note that in response to this valid and severe concern, the administration stated that the use of any insurance has not been decided and is still being discussed with Allina Health. Boe House is not necessarily going away even if it will be operated by another healthcare provider. Fortunately, according to the administration, “this is non-negotiable.”
Another concern raised by a student was that without insurance outside of St. Olaf, there are not mental health resources in place for students to get properly diagnosed. This installs a barrier for many students not only because of difficulty navigating their symptoms alone, but also because many professional psychiatrists require a mental diagnosis to be seen. In response to this concern, the administration stated that Allina Health has already agreed to waive the medical diagnosis that was previously necessary in order to be seen by a mental health professional. Other specific resources for underinsured students, however, are not yet clear.
From the Town Hall meeting, I gathered that preliminary conversations with Allina Health have not addressed the details many students are looking for. This is because, as far as we know, the details of the outsource have not been officially decided. That being said, this is a severe and pressing issue that needs to be resolved considering many students in need of help are are currently unable to get it due to the inadequate resources that St. Olaf has in place.
Students are and should be at the heart of this conversation. Several concerns raised by students were not things that the leaders of this movement appeared to have been aware of prior to the meeting. The disconnect expressed by the administration during this meeting reflects the disconnect of the institution’s conceptualization of mental health on campus. It is ingrained within the mission of St. Olaf College “to be an inclusive community.” However, inadequate training of Public Safety officers in responding to mental health emergencies, inadequate access to immediate professional help, inadequate presence of professional counselors of color and inadequate consideration of low-income or international students in the conversation inherently excludes students who are most in need of inclusivity. These are things I hope that the college considers in the discussion of bettering resources.
Additionally, I fear that a dialogue addressing the cause of the overall decrease in students’ mental health is lacking. According to the St. Olaf Executive Summary and The American College Health Association National College Health Assessment II, in 2014, nine percent of St. Olaf students had considered suicide, 53 percent had felt overwhelming anxiety and 34 percent felt too depressed to function. The meeting addressed the fact that the crippling mental health of students in conjunction with the insufficient access to professional help is not unique to this campus, but is in fact a statewide, and, unfortunately, country-wide issue. In addition to ensuring that confidential mental health resources are made accessible to all students, it is equally important during this time to promote wellness in education. It is also vital to improve mental health services for underrepresented students in order to address the intersectional concerns of the student body and prevent these students from falling behind. By focusing too much on treatment, we are forgetting to think broader in terms of the comprehensive system. What about our educational institution is causing more and more students to suffer with mental health? What can we do as a community to change that?
The administrative members at the Town Hall meeting understand that the uncertainty surrounding these resources may cause anxiety for many students. Their aim in this meeting was to relieve the uncertainty surrounding the conversation and to hear students’ concerns. They are planning to set up additional meetings to hear from students once their is more concrete information. This is a student centered issue and therefore it is crucial that students are present at these future meetings, said to occur next month, to share their concerns and support fellow St. Olaf students whose mental health rides on the outcome of these decisions.
Isabel Galic ‘19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Oak Park, Ill. She majors in psychology and sociology/anthropology.