Student Town Hall Focuses on Mental Health, Sustainability
Last year’s tri-colored post-it notes, round tables, and two standing mics made an appearance once again at the third Town Hall discussion on Nov 4. Student Assembly (SA) President Amanda Kim ’21 and Vice President Jiin Jeong ’21 led the program that focused on two topics selected by students: mental health and sustainability.
The mental health portion began with an introduction by Rebecca Dayton, assistant director of the Counseling Center. Dayton said the center has seen a 47 percent increase in demand from last year, which has resulted in the recent hiring of two additional part-time therapists on top of the new programs added to increase therapy options for students. She also put the issue in perspective nationally. Students at Hamilton, she said, “know where and when to seek help more than peer institutions.” Hamilton is also among the top 2.8 percent in the country in terms of how well the counseling center is utilized.
Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Jeff Landry gave a historical perspective of counseling center staffing. In 2002, he said there were three counselors on the second floor of the Rudd Health Center. Today, Hamilton’s counseling center employs five full-time Ph.D. therapists, two part-time psychiatrists, one part-time Ph.D. psychologist, three licensed social workers, one dietician, one acupuncturist, and an office coordinator, making a staff of 14. Additional resources include sound healing, art therapy, bio feedback, massage chair, weighted blankets, happy lamps, 10 group therapy sessions, and peer counselors.
In the open forum discussion portion of the program, students asked what Hamilton is doing to support the mental health of students of color and how to address mental health before it becomes a problem. Dean of Students Terry Martinez shared initiatives and projects that the administration was working on in order to address some of these issues.
“This summer, we held a retreat with senior leadership to set goals around diversity and inclusion in particular,” Martinez said. “We’re taking a look at it from a systemic perspective. For example, Dean [of Faculty Suzanne] Keen has come up with a list of ways to work with faculty members who have experience and an interest in working with diverse populations around the recruitment of faculty. We’re taking a look at implicit bias in our hiring practices, we’re doing cultural competency training for staff members, and we are continuing to take a look at how once members from all different backgrounds are welcomed and connected to the community.”
One student inquired about suicide prevention and intervention training on campus. Dayton and Martinez shared information about gatekeeper training that has been offered since 2017. Dayton also spoke about Hamilton’s partnership with the Jed Foundation, an organization that assesses campuses in how they react, respond, and address suicide. Other programs have been implemented and new staff members hired to focus on student mental health.
Discussion around the second topic, sustainability, began with an introduction from Vice President for Administration and Finance Karen Leach, who reported on the steps Hamilton has taken to become more sustainable. She highlighted the College’s Climate Action Plan, environmental building construction methods, and the environmental studies program.
“The advent of that program really gave a new momentum to thinking about sustainability on campus,” Leach said. “For the first time, we have students who are doing research in this area, who have science-backed interest in how this could actually manifest on our campus, and [who] are helping us in various ways.”
Leach also spoke about summer sustainability internships, sustainability coordinators, and implementing individual student projects such as reducing plastic water bottles on campus. Last year, the Sustainability Working Group was formed to look for ways to harvest new energy and update Hamilton’s Climate Action Plan.
One student inquired whether trustees would be willing to fully divest the College’s endowment from fossil fuels. President David Wippman said divestment is not consistent with the board’s fiduciary obligations. “The board, in 2014, said, ‘We are not going to divest now,’ but it’s an issue that we are continuing to discuss,” Wippman said. “We do take ESG [environmental, social, and governance] principles into account when making investments, and our largest investment by far is in one of the best ESG funds.” He said the College currently invests 3 percent of its endowment in fossil fuel companies and that number is declining.
Past town halls had been held once a year, but Kim and Jeong said Student Assembly is hoping to hold one each semester. Like last year, SA will review every post-it note that students and administrators marked “Stop, Start, Continue,” and share the feedback with the rest of the community.
“I hope that students will feel empowered by getting the chance to not only voice their opinion but also receive an immediate administrative response,” Kim said. “I think a lot of student frustrations can be tied back to a feeling of not knowing what’s going on, and a big question we as an Assembly have been grappling with is how we can better ensure that people are informed. So there’s a huge educational aspect to the town halls in that our goal is for people to walk away not just feeling empowered but also more knowledgeable in general.”