Posters advertising an upcoming talk by Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Lead Faculty for Behavioral Science at Northeastern University Dr. Kristen Lee — a mental health speaker promoted by Active Minds, the organization responsible for the exhibit “Send Silence Packing” — were defaced last week. Vandals placed quotation marks around the word “licensed” in the poster. While the administration moved quickly to remove the vandalized posters, students remained wary about the upcoming talk as well as the administration’s efforts to remedy the campus-wide mental health crisis.
“I think to an extent we do need to have awareness talks and have people talking about awareness and bringing that awareness to campus,” Katie Mazzolini ’22 said. “But I think we need to do it in a way that when we bring awareness we can also back it up with resources — and we don’t have that.”
The Emotional Health and Well-Being Task Force was created early in fall 2019. Its purpose, however, was compounded by the “Send Silence Packing” exhibit in late September, which caused widespread frustration among students, who felt the exhibit was an insensitive way of addressing mental health issues and reflected a lack of effective listening on the part of the administration.
In December, members of the Task Force, including Sophomore Class President Skyler Lesser-Roy ’22, travelled to the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) Mental Health Summit to collect ideas about how to improve Kenyon’s culture surrounding mental health. Lesser-Roy was inspired by Active Minds representatives she met there, and after researching speakers on their website, she suggested to the Taskforce that Lee come speak at Kenyon. As an outsider with experience in rebuilding the wellbeing of various communities, Lesser-Roy said that Dr. Lee could offer valuable insight into how to tackle Kenyon’s own issues.
Despite fears that Dr. Lee’s talk being sponsored by Active Minds would be a problem, Lesser-Roy said the organization as a whole does a great job of supporting mental health on college campuses and prevention of suicide across the country.
“That definitely was a concern that [the Task Force] spoke about,” she said. “I think that Active Minds is not at fault for ‘Send Silence Packing.’ ‘Send Silence Packing’ does really great things in environments that need it — Kenyon was not an environment that needed ‘Send Silence Packing.’”
Lesser-Roy’s efforts culminated on Tuesday evening, when around 60 students, faculty and administrators gathered in Rosse Hall to hear Dr. Lee’s talk, entitled “Adopting a Healthy Mental Health Culture on Campus: What Everyone Can Do.”
Lesser-Roy opened the event on a somber note. “Last year our community experienced a tragedy that affected us all,” she said. “Stella [Simic ’22]’s memory is a driving force behind the commitment this community has in creating a mental health support network that benefits all students.”
Dr. Lee’s talk focused on how one can unlearn false ideas about mental health promoted by a culture that stigmatizes mental health issues as well as the importance of practicing self-care with intentionality. She encouraged the audience to move away from the idea that we are “commodities,” that mental health issues are “obvious” and that self-care is superficial and won’t work. Instead, she suggested that we focus on understanding contextual risks — including those perpetuated by a consumerist culture — share resources, promote peer support and focus on prevention rather than working to resolve crises after the fact.
Following her talk, Lee opened the floor for questions. She was met with varying levels of frustration from students in attendance. Many of the questions focused on dismantling fixed structures within the College that aggravate student mental health issues. Students were particularly concerned about developing trust among students and administration, navigating legal liability in relation to suicidal ideations and expanding campus resources given Kenyon’s rural location.
“How do we manage having a dialogue with each other, but also getting the resources that we need?” Mazzolini asked Lee. “How can we ensure that our dialogue is heard when we don’t trust the administration?”
After Mazzolini’s comment, Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens came up to the microphone and expressed her concerns about the mentality of the student body towards the administration.
“On this campus, we really seem to have an ‘us versus them’ discord,” she said. “You mentioned how you don’t think you can trust the administration, and that really saddens me because your administration is here to support you.”
While Lee commended Dickens’ comment, adding that it is “easy to dehumanize an administration,” Mazzolini saw things differently. After the event, she reached out to Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92, asking for more details about the cost of this speaker.
“It cost $5,800 plus travel fees,” Mazzolini said. “The fact that they brought a speaker just shows that the student body and the administration have different thoughts of what’s going to be helpful.”
Despite this continuous back-and-forth among students and administration, Lesser-Roy emphasized the fact that the Task Force is working to improve resources on campus. She discussed the development of “wellness ambassadors,” a combination of different departmental groups such as the PCs, Beer and Sex advisors and Diversity Advisors. Essentially, wellness ambassadors are there to serve students from the very beginning of freshman year and onwards, providing individualized student support.
“When you [meet] your Orientation Leader, they’ll say ‘Here’s your wellness ambassador, contact them. Your freshman advisor sort of thing.’ So you always feel like there’s continued support,” she said.