Dartmouth releases five-year plan to improve mental health and well-being on campus

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-25-2023 12:57 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth College released a new strategic plan for mental health and well-being this week.

The plan’s release follows President Sian Leah Beilock’s inaugural address last month in which she pledged to prioritize the issue.

It outlines steps the college will take — and in some cases already has — to “realize our vision to be a caring, inclusive community that prioritizes mental health and well-being and equips all students with the resources and skills to thrive at Dartmouth and after graduation,” according to a Monday community message from Provost David Kotz.

Kotz, in a Zoom interview earlier this month, said that it isn’t the college’s responsibility to make its students well.

Instead, he said, it’s “our responsibility to provide them with the tools they need to become well.”

The “Commitment to Care: Dartmouth’s Strategic Plan for Student Mental Health and Well-Being,” which was released Monday, articulates five strategic goals:

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■Centering well-being;

■Creating an inclusive community;

■Preparing students to navigate both success and failure;

■Supporting students experiencing mental illness;

■Investing in evidence-based approaches to changing needs.

The strategic plan — most of which is intended to implemented over the next five years — takes into account feedback from the Jed Foundation, best practices from other institutions, and input from students, staff and faculty. The college engaged the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit working to prevent suicides of young adults, after a spate of student deaths in the 2020-21 school year.

In all, the plan includes 73 specific actions, 35 of which have already been undertaken.

The college earlier had announced several of the initiatives included in the newly released plan, including the 24/7 availability of Uwill teletherapy, the elimination of fees for overnight observation in the college’s infirmary and the launch of a new time away policy. The college also has begun training faculty in suicide awareness.

The training of faculty and staff in how to support students who may be struggling is an important part of the plan, Kiara Ortiz, Dartmouth’s student body vice president, said.

Having people students consider role models acknowledging mental health and developing new skills to better help students can “contribute to that culture where it’s ok” to ask for help, she said.

The college has developed a website, mentalhealth.dartmouth.edu, intended to centralize information about mental health and wellness resources. The website comes in response to a finding at Dartmouth by the Jed Foundation, which was that “information (about mental health resources) is available but it’s not always easy to find,” Kotz said.

Also ongoing is the recruitment of the college’s first chief health and wellness officer, who will oversee most of the planned initiatives and report directly to Beilock. Kotz said he’s hopeful the new person will be in place by January.

He noted that the position will be responsible for the health and wellness of students as well as employees, taking the helm of “all the programs we already have and then build on that.” Included under the new hire’s purview will be Dick’s House and employee wellness programs.

Jessica Chiriboga, Dartmouth’s student body president, said she’s hopeful centralizing wellness services under one leader will make it easier for the college to be innovative.

This also will be a person student leaders can meet with regularly who in turn will be reporting to Beilock, she said.

“I’m really excited about it,” she said.

Also under development is an assessment of the college’s academic calendars. The assessment will include an examination of the undergraduate quarter system, as well as the calendars for the graduate and professional schools. Students have pointed to the condensed academic terms — most colleges have three a year rather than four — as an added stressor, which may affect their well-being.

The study is expected to take more than one year and will consider the idea of adding a designated “Day of Caring” in the middle of each term, Kotz said. The college held one such day last fall following several deaths of students and recent graduates, including at least one by suicide.

Student government has been collecting data through surveys about whether students would like to have a wellness day be a regular part of the Dartmouth schedule. More than 80% of 1,046 students surveyed after last year’s Day of Caring said they thought repeating the day of pausing classes would be somewhat or extremely helpful, Chiriboga said. But, she noted, that in some cases the day off of classes added stress because of the way work was rearranged to accommodate the day. It’s also unclear “when exactly it could be in the calendar,” she said.

Another ongoing discussion is where and how the college might establish a location on campus designated for grieving, Kotz said.

The discussions about creating a memorial come from “wanting to find a way to recognize that (and) also support students in the future,” Kotz said.

The student government leaders said they’re hopeful the college can develop more outdoor spaces on campus where students can take time between classes to breathe, meditate or pray.

“Kiara and I have been very interested in advocating for the college to increase its investment in year-round outdoor wellness,” Chiriboga, the student body president, said.

Chiriboga said she was glad to see that the plan includes gathering data about the effectiveness of the college’s efforts to address mental health and wellness.

“All of that data will really help us when the first wave of these initiatives end,” she said. “In a couple years, where do we need to move?”

The college is looking at ways to use ideas developed by researchers at Dartmouth to improve the way the college supports mental health and wellness.

It’s “not a once and done kind of problem,” Kotz said. It’s an “ongoing effort. As we learn how mental health and wellness works (and the) ways we need to support students in this context then we’ll need to adapt.”

The college plans to hold a town hall later this term to offer community members an opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback on the plan.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

CLARIFICATION: A website aimed at centralizing me ntal health resources at D artmouth College is at mentalhealth.dartmouth.edu. A previous version of this story was unclear about the status of the website.