Thursday, November 12th, 2015...10:01 am

Student protest for mental health: Interview with Wren sit-in’s organizers

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Over homecoming weekend, Friday Oct. 23, a student-organized sit-in was held outside the Sir Christopher Wren Building. The goal of the protest was to draw attention to what students see as a continued issue: the inadequacy of mental health care on campus. I spoke to the sit-in’s organizers, Liz Wolfe ’18 and Taylor Medley ’17 about their motives, goals, and hopes for the future when it comes to mental health advocacy.

What made you decide to organize the sit-in? Both why you felt an event was needed in general and why you felt a sit-in was the best format.

Wolfe: “I’m trying to strike a balance between constructive and radical — too often, WM students are comfortable with complacency, or working within a system instead of recognizing flaws with a system and openly critiquing it. This has always been one of my fundamental frustrations with our community, and a sit-in was the most logical choice to deal with that tension. The symbolic aspect — a bunch of students quietly listening to the experiences of their peers, holding signs that demand better, sitting at our school’s most iconic landmark peacefully, contemplative and clear — mattered a lot to me. I never intended to create an event, but there was such a strong and emotional response to my article, that many felt some form of action was needed. I wasn’t even the main voice spurring the Sit-In’s creation, but once I realized people were willing to mobilize due to my words and their own experiences, I helped put it together. ”

Medley: “After reading Liz Wolfe’s piece published in the Flat Hat and the Gadfly, I felt so overwhelmingly hopeless — I had read so many articles like this before and here was another story of someone who sought help and had a negative experience. As always, many students were sharing the article with their own negative experiences attached, frustrated that this was happening to so many people. If this was anything like the previous articles, all the buzz would calm after a day or so — I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to prolong the conversation with an event of some sort, the idea for the sit-in came 2 hours after I shared my own story. Liz and I met at the Grind and an hour later I had made a Facebook event. We decided to do a sit-in because we honestly didn’t know what format we wanted it to take, a sit-in seemed like the best way to get out the word that we wanted a large gathering of people to come out in solidarity around this issue. As the week went on, our focused became less about protesting the school’s handling of mental health issues and lack of resources, but instead a space where students could share their experience and have others listen. It sort-of turned into a ‘speak-out’ in that way.”

What are the main issues you’ve heard people discussing regarding mental health?

Wolfe: “Lack of psychiatrist, slow hiring of psychiatrist, long wait times for appointments, having clinical interns instead of licensed therapists, poor therapist quality, being forced to take Emergency Medical Leave by the Dean of Students office, having a hard time getting readmitted to WM after EML.”

Medley: “Many students voiced that they had extremely long wait times for their first appointment. Kelly Crace (VP of Health Promotion) and VP Ginger Ambler both said that no student has to wait the full time if they feel like they can’t wait to be seen — the Counseling Center should always let students know that there is a walk-in option at the end of the day; however, we came to the conclusion that this information wasn’t widespread on campus and even though this existed in policy, it wasn’t being carried out in practice. Many students also spoke of seeking help for disordered eating concerns and being frustrated that they were sent off campus. In their opinion, disordered eating is very prevalent amongst college students and the College should have a staff member that is trained to handle these issues to close the gaps in care that exist for students who cannot go off campus for support. So many other stories were shared but there was a common theme: care is not as accessible as it should be and students who have negative experiences are often left with no other options.”

What do you think is the biggest obstacle students with mental health concerns currently face at the College?

Wolfe: “Poor on-campus care.”

Medley: “In my opinion, students often belittle their situations and feelings — we don’t think what we’re going through is “serious enough” and often put off getting helping because of that. We all deserve support, we all deserve access to adequate resources to get better. I also think there’s a tension between people who have negative experiences with campus mental health resources and those who have positive experiences — I have been told that the sit-in was harmful because it would prevent people from seeking help if people spoke out about their bad experiences; however, we have to address the reality that good and bad experiences with campus resources can (and do!) exist in the same space. We can’t silence the voices of some in order to create a more positive space around mental health — that just means we’re creating a false narrative about what support looks like at William and Mary. Instead, we should acknowledge that a lot of people benefit from the resources available right now, but gaps in care still exist. We can continue to grow and get better while valuing and validating everyone’s story.”

Would you organize or participate in another event like this in the future?

Wolfe: “Yeah, I’m going to organize more. I’m currently organizing a libertarian conference so once the conference is over, I’ll have a bit more time to dedicate to this. I’m taking 19 credits, running College Libertarians, organizing this libertarian conference, and traveling for Model UN, so things are busy right now — stay tuned for another article, though, for sure.”

Medley: “ I definitely would! The event was supposed to go from 1pm-2:30pm. At 2:45pm people were still sharing stories and it was clear that more people wanted to share when I had to end the event. Everyone struggles with mental health issues at some point in their lives, so there are endless stories to be told. I think providing a space for people to share their experiences is such a powerful way to incite change and impassion others.”

How would you advise students to take further action on this issue?

Wolfe: “Write articles. Get them published in Flat Hat or Gadfly — bring visibility to this issue and to our experiences. Send emails to Kelly Crace and Ginger Ambler, letting them know how much this matters to us.”

Medley: “Join organizations that work on these issues and make conversations about mental health a normal part of the organizations you’re already involved in. Write opinion pieces for publications about mental health at the College, whether it’s your personal experience or a more factual piece, keep the conversation going! Keep telling your stories and listening to the stories of others — even if their experience was different from yours, uplift student voices. Talk to professors about how they can be better advocates to students, inside and outside the classroom. Contact the Alumni Association and ask to write a column for their newsletter to help keep alumni updated and engaged. Contact administrators (Kelly Crace, Ginger Ambler, Director of the Counseling Center) about concerns! “

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