W&M Board of Visitors Talks Student Mental Health at Meeting

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Image courtesy William & Mary.

After the fourth student suicide in nine months drew national attention to the school, the College of William & Mary is having a discussion of the state of mental health on campus.

The William & Mary Board of Visitors Committee on Student Affairs discussed the college’s approach to student mental health for more than an hour Thursday, with Rector Todd Stottlemyer calling it the beginning of a conversation the college needed to have.

“This is a time for introspection,” he said.

That conversation was brought about by the death of a William & Mary sophomore, who took his own life April 13. It was the fourth suicide by a William & Mary student since August 2014.

“This is a hard and complex topic,” BOV member Leigh Pence said.

For more than an hour, BOV members, administrators and students discussed the college’s current approach to mental health and the mentality of the student body.

Associate Vice President for Health & Wellness Kelly Crace said the use of the Counseling Center had increased by more than 40 percent since 2003, including a 2008 spike in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, which left 32 people dead.

Counseling Center Director Warrenetta Mann said the center averaged about 40 planned appointments with students each week, and an additional two to three walk-ins every day. Of the students who come to the Counseling Center, Mann said about one-third have been diagnosed with a clinical condition, and another third will likely be diagnosed during their time at the college.

Although Counseling Center use has gone up in recent years at William & Mary, Crace said the same was true at colleges across the country. He partially attributed that to a lack of “resiliency” among modern college students who either seek “perfection” or “procrastination” when confronting stress.

Crace also said William & Mary had developed a particularly stressful culture among its students.

“We define success by suffering,” Crace said. “If I’m no longer distinct because of my intelligence – and this is William & Mary; everyone here is bright – if I don’t have that, then all I have to define myself is my effort.”

Mann and Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas said the Counseling Center regularly reviewed its practices, and was exploring the creation of a new “protocol” that would allow increased interaction and availability of resources for students in need.

Even with expanded services, Crace said the system would not be perfect.

“Eight years ago last week, the nature of our work changed forever,” Crace said. “With Virginia Tech, and the tragedy that happened there, there became this immediate responsive demand and expectation that we become perfectly predictive and perfectly protective – and we will fail at that.”

Students in attendance also spoke out on the issue.

“For a lot of students, this might be their first time experiencing death,” outgoing Student Assembly president Colin Danly said. “Waking up at 8 a.m., reading the email [announcing a student’s suicide] and having to go to a 10 a.m. class, and the professor basically saying nothing? … It really kind of messes with your head, like, what is the point of life?”

Danly said canceling classes after a student’s suicide could be one option, but said there could be pushback from certain parts of the community.

No immediate actions were taken by the Board of Visitors, but board members were pleased with the course of the meeting.

“I think we’ve had a wonderful discussion,” board member Leigh Pence said. “It’s by no means over.”