According to a pamphlet I received after walking through the recent “Send Silence Packing” installation, the display’s purpose was twofold: “to raise mental health awareness and inspire action for suicide prevention.” Based on these purported goals, I understand Cox Health and Counseling Center Director Chris Smith’s intention in bringing it to Kenyon. It is certainly important to host discussions about mental illness and suicide on college campuses. However, despite Vice President of Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham’s ’92 suggestion in a Sept. 25 email to students, a “continued campus dialogue” about mental health is no longer beneficial to Kenyon students because it does not lead to necessary changes.
If the administration is truly committed to our well-being, they will cease these calls for ‘discourse’ and instead dedicate more resources to improve the Counseling Center’s inadequate services.
Kenyon students have participated in challenging discussions about mental health for years. We were well aware of the pervasiveness of suicide before “Send Silence Packing,” especially after last semester’s traumatic loss. So why, then, did administrators think a lack of awareness or discussion was the problem? And why did they believe a community forum would address the systemic issues plaguing the Counseling Center?
Despite their pretense of open communication, these forums nonetheless reveal that administrators and Counseling Center staff are not interested in real change. They simply want to assuage our anger with the promise of a ‘listening ear’ as they ignore our cries for adequate resources. It is certainly easier for Kenyon’s administration and Counseling Center to momentarily placate students than it is to address our demands for better mental health services. But empty platitudes like ‘we hear you’ are not enough to ensure our well-being, and advertising the Counseling Center’s insufficient services—services that cannot meet student needs—actually jeopardizes our safety.
The Counseling Center and administration cannot escape accountability with more awareness campaigns or community forums—they must adopt practical changes that actively address our concerns. At minimum, the Counseling Center should increase the number of counselors available to students, even if the current ‘counselor-to-student’ ratio is typical for a college of Kenyon’s size. It should also ensure that counselors are qualified, diverse and trained in cultural competency to support students at the highest risk of mental illness (i.e. students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students of color, LGBT students, etc.).
The Task Force on Emotional Health and Well-Being must guarantee that its committee members are a diverse group of individuals willing to listen to community feedback after publicizing their findings.
Most importantly, the Counseling Center must prioritize student health over administrative concerns regarding insufficient financial resources or legal liability. Even if adequate mental health resources do become available, I wonder whether students would trust them completely if the Counseling Center continues to enact change without ensuring transparency, meet administrative demands at the expense of student safety and crush student attempts to support one another (e.g. the 2018 termination of critical Peer Counselor services).
Awareness may be the first step to change, but it is not enough to produce it. Students have been aware of the Cox Health and Counseling Center’s limitations for years. Now, we need to see the administration take action, implement changes based on student input and support us wholeheartedly.
So, in the interest of holding the Counseling Center and administration accountable after bringing “Send Silence Packing” to campus, I pose these questions: Now that students have made you aware of the Counseling Center’s inadequacies, do you feel inspired to effectively treat mental illness and prevent suicide on campus? Are you ready, then, to meet our demands for action? Are you prepared to allocate the resources needed to provide students with high-quality counseling? Or will you continue to force all 1,700 Kenyon students to make do with only four full-time counselors, a minimum two-week wait for an appointment and the knowledge that you care more about preventing liability than improving our lives?