Mental Health Services at Wheaton

On Oct. 9, WheAccess club hosted a meeting to discuss the counseling center and general access to mental health services for students on campus. During the meeting, similarities between personal stories shared were discovered. 

“I have struggled more than I ever have since coming back to Wheaton after McLean. The problems I needed help for were never addressed, and being sectioned made my depression exponentially worse. I am struggling in all my classes now and I am seriously considering leaving Wheaton because they are doing nothing to help,” said a student who had been directly affected by the center. 

Sectioning refers to a process by which a student can be deemed a danger to themselves or others by a physician, nurse practitioner, qualified psychiatric nurse, qualified psychologist, licensed independent clinical social worker, or police officer. On campus, either public safety or the counseling center make this decision. At Wheaton, a student is typically taken to Sturdy Memorial Hospital, evaluated by a psychiatrist, and then is either allowed to return to campus or is taken in as a patient at McLean Psychiatric Hospital, in Middleboro, Mass. 

“Sectioning is an extremely important measure, but it should only be used for students who really need it! For students who do not, it can be extremely traumatizing, and will affect their mental health and schoolwork,” stated a student present at the meeting on Oct. 9. 

However, no physical evidence is required to warrant a Section 12 on a student. According to Mass. law, “If an examination is not possible because of the emergency nature of the case and because of the refusal of the person to consent to such examination, the [qualified professional] on the basis of the facts and circumstances may determine that hospitalization is necessary and may apply therefore.” The student body does feel, however, that public safety and the counseling center abuse this power.

The students at this meeting also shared concerns about the resources available at the two hospitals, quoting nurses as reassuringly remarking, “We see Wheaton students here all the time” and a social worker from McLean saying, “Your counseling center is difficult to work with.” 

Following this, WheAccess club and the Accessibility Board hosted a second space for conversation, inviting staff and faculty. The President of WheAccess, Hannah Newmarch ’20, and the Accessibility Board Chair, Mikaela Savarese ’22, drew the conversation in the direction of advocacy, connecting stories and concerns shared to possible solutions and changes they’d like to see made on campus. The conversation moved from the issue of Section 12 to other issues with the counseling center. A list of demands for changes was created by Savarese and Kavita Premkumar ’22. 

“I’m appalled at the atrocious violation of human rights that has been and continues to be committed at this institution. As an upcoming graduate and future alumnae, I demand to see a radical change in the field of accessibility in order for me to ever consider giving back to this school,” said a senior present at the meeting.

“I’m proud of how our community came together in support of each other and of fixing these issues. And also as someone who would like a career in mental health, I was devastated when I heard about the experiences that were coming out of counseling at Wheaton,” said another student at the meeting.

Two other concerns around the counseling center were about the director of health services and counseling, Valerie Tobias’ qualifications. Tobias has two master’s degrees. A master’s in public health, with a concentration in maternal and child health and a second in social work. She graduated from Wheaton with a BA in psychology. Thought the director meets some qualifications, the student body expressed that they would prefer someone with more background knowledge on the topic of counseling and health services. There is, to note, an associate director of health services, Cynthia Maricle.

Newmarch, Savarese and Premkumar are currently working with Dean Irish to enact some of these changes. The list has also been given to the Board of Trustees, who offered their support to the student body. They hope to see several changes carried out this semester and further action taken by the end of this school year.