Deans discuss mental health issue at Rice
After an opinion piece printed in the Thresher, a student rally and countless Facebook statuses, a conversation addressing the mental health and wellbeing of Rice University students took place Feb. 4. Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson and Associate Dean of Undergraduates Don Ostdiek, accompanied by staff from the Wellness Center, Counseling Center, and the Office of Student Development and Retention, responded to student questions on Rice's handling of mental health issues at a meeting hosted by the Student Association, Active Minds, the Women's Resource Center and the Rice Health Advisors, according to discussion moderator and chair of the Wellness Working Group Philomena Bradford.
Bradford, a Duncan College senior who helped organize last semester's mental health rally, asked the deans questions submitted by Rice students.
Hutchinson said it was important to maintain communication and to ensure that the community is educated about and understands the resources for mental wellness available at Rice.
"We began a year ago and asked how we should have this conversation about mental health and how to find what resources were available," Hutchinson said. "This led to the Wellbeing Project, which has the same objective as the working group now, which is to ensure we have the resources we need and that people are aware of those resources and will use them."
Hutchinson said that after a year of assessing the reserouces available at Rice, for the last year and a half, the university began to expand the Counseling Center and the resources available for mental wellbeing.
"It's very difficult to put a marker on how [the center] has grown," Hutchinson said. "There was restructuring and more staff. There was an increase in available resources by about 30 percent. If that's not adequate, we'll keep building forward from there. We hired clinical social workers to manage resources, manage students, especially those in need of hospitalizations [so they] get the care they need and transition back to the university. We're in the process of hiring a new psychiatrist who will lead the Counseling Center."
According to Hutchinson, the current concerns are presence and availability of resources, how Rice works with students in crisis and how decisions are made for those students.
"For the past year and a half, we've been revising protocol and processes," Hutchinson said. "We don't want people to be afraid. We want you to trust we have your wellbeing at heart. If you know the resources and processes, you'll more readily turn to us so we can give you support."
Hutchinson said the goal of expanding resources was to ensure that everyone could access them in a timely fashion. He said resources have been ramped up dramatically in the past semester and so there should no longer be delays for people getting access to counseling.
Ostdiek said change did not occur immediately and that the last year and a half was indicative of the aggressive push the administration was making for mental wellbeing. He said student feedback was always needed, and the issue was not an arms race against peer institutions.
"To reach more people, we need to increase the ways they can learn about the resources we have," Ostdiek said. "We need something during [Orientation Week], more structure and training to get people aware about them. We will have counselors go to residential colleges at night. Our resources are very accurate; we are well-resourced."
Hutchinson said the policies were already publicly accessible and clearly posted.
"If people think it should be posted more, we'll do it," Hutchinson said. "That's one of the things we'll work with the working group on - other ways on how to get the info out. Every student who's been sexually assaulted should know how to contact someone and what to do."
Hutchinson said Rice was attempting to establish a relationship with the Houston Area Women's Center as a resource separate from the university students could contact.
"I think it's a resource we need," Hutchinson said. "They have the best expertise on mental health in the city, and they would be an independent group that students could trust in."
Ostdiek said that HAWC, despite its name, is for everyone.
"Training is for everyone, both males and females," Ostdiek said. "There have been male victims who have come forward to us. We will address them as well."
Hutchinson said there were good reasons why the university asks for information from mental health professionals for students returning from medical leave and that students should not be deterred from being open with their therapists.
"We need to have a clear understanding of what's going on to know when you're ready to come back," Hutchinson said. "What do we request? Very little. We don't ask deeper questions, like about diagnosis, prescription or underlying causes."
Hutchinson said that because of Rice's small size, the conversations held and steps taken with students in crisis are always on a case-by-case basis. He said all relevant parties, including the student, masters, counseling staff and even parents, when appropriate, are involved and that in most cases, the student is the decision-maker.
"We try to find the best path back to Rice," Hutchinson said. "We ask the student if they can manage Rice's workload, if they are better taking some time off or if it's something more serious that'd require hospitalization. Rice can't hospitalize someone. [We will work] very hard ... to persuade the student that they need to be in a safe location where they can get the care they need. Well over 90 percent who are in a situation where a withdrawal is necessary choose to withdraw."
Hutchinson said there were three main criteria for evaluating if a student should remain at Rice.
"Is the student a risk to themselves?" Hutchinson said. "Are they a risk to other members of the community? Can the student disrupt the ability of other Rice students to maintain their lives? For students who take a voluntary withdrawal, 75 to 80 percent return. 20 to 25 students leav[e] a semester. These students typically self-identify. They turned to us for help. We have an Office of [Student Development and] Retention focused on getting students back to Rice."
Bradford said the forum was organized by the SA and the deans and she appreciated everyone who attended and that the working group she will lead will make the deans accountable.
"Now we need to make sure those changes really do happen," Bradford said. "I think policy is still unclear. I'm still not sure if all decisions are always in a student's best interest."
Students should be wary about only complaining and not offering solutions, Martel College freshman Rachel Sterling said.
"To merely request better services and then complain when the administration's version of 'better services' does not match our own, should not be seen as a fault of the administration, but a lack of communication [on the students'] part," Sterling said.
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