Jim Kenyon: On mental health, Dartmouth College says ‘no thanks for the help’

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/8/2022 11:01:39 PM
Modified: 10/8/2022 11:02:21 PM

Before its 24/7 mobile crisis response team hit the road in January, West Central Behavioral Health reached out to schools, police departments and hospitals to let them know about the one-of-a-kind service available on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley.

Viewed as a much-needed new tool in the suicide prevention tool box, West Central’s commitment to more on-the-ground work was welcomed by government and community institutions.

With one exception: Dartmouth College.

The college’s response “kind of fell short, in our minds,” West Central CEO Roger Osmun said when we talked Wednesday.

Last summer, Doug Williamson, a retired Alice Peck Day pediatrician who chairs West Central’s governing board, contacted Heather Earle, director of Dartmouth’s counseling center.

Earle was “very enthusiastic, but once she started running it up the administrative ladder, it didn’t go anywhere,” Williamson, a 1985 Dartmouth graduate, told me Thursday.

“I get the feeling that Dartmouth is worried about losing control,” he added. “They’re trying to do it all themselves.”

In light of recent tragedies on and off campus, Dartmouth’s we’ve-got-this-covered stance is disconcerting.

Following the announcement of two student deaths in late September, 500 members of the Dartmouth community gathered in front of the library as college leaders talked about, among things, efforts to improve mental health services. “One size will not ever fit all,” said Scott Brown, Dartmouth’s interim dean.

Dartmouth’s counseling center offers 24-hour crisis mental health services. The center’s web page features a lengthy list of phone numbers for national help lines and emergency services in the Upper Valley, including Hanover police and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s ER.

But no mention of West Central’s mobile crisis response team or the 24/7 New Hampshire Rapid Response crisis line that launched in January as well.

I’d like to think the omissions have something to do with the services being brand new.

In a state not known for robust spending on social services, New Hampshire officials approved $52.4 million in contracts with the state’s 10 mental health centers last year. West Central, which covers southern Grafton County and Sullivan County, saw its state allotment go from $1.4 million to $3 million. It also raised private money to support the crisis team.

New Hampshire’s new 24/7 mental health call center is tied into the state’s expanded network of mobile crisis teams. A trained staff fields calls from people experiencing mental health crises — or anyone reaching out on their behalf.

After assessing a caller’s needs, mental health workers decide whether to send in a crisis response team. (West Central’s seven-member team includes mental health clinicians with master’s degrees.)

“You don’t need insurance. You won’t get a bill,” said Osmun, a psychologist, who was named West Central’s CEO in 2019, after working for 22 years at a nonprofit behavioral health organization that served suburban Philadelphia.

West Central adopted what Osmun calls the firehouse model: “We have people awake and working at two in the morning.”

The two-person teams drive unmarked vehicles and wear casual clothes to meet callers in their homes, street corners, parking lots or wherever people prefer. “Ideally, we should be able to keep 99% of people safe and in the community,” Osmun said.

On Thursday, Dartmouth announced it was partnering with Uwill, a student teletherapy provider, to provide free access to mental health services via phone, video and chat, starting Nov. 1. It “comes in the midst of an intensifying mental health crisis across the nation and as the campus mourns the loss of several community members,” a college news release stated.

Which brings me back to West Central. The Lebanon-based nonprofit, which has been providing outpatient mental health services since 1977, can offer something that Dartmouth can’t.

Some students might not feel comfortable seeking mental health help from the institution that in many ways controls their lives and futures. If they seek counseling, is that part of their college records? Who at Dartmouth potentially has access to that information?

“Those things shouldn’t be barriers” to students seeking help, Osmun said.

According to the counseling center’s web page, it abides by a “confidentiality policy which respects privacy and promotes better healthcare.”

The counseling center goes on to say, however, that “if we think you are in imminent danger of serious self-harm we may communicate with other providers, college administrators or Safety & Security, other public safety departments, or your family.”

For that reason, some students may not want to “go through the Dartmouth system,” Williamson said.

West Central isn’t giving up. Williamson recently contacted an administrator in the student life office. He’s also visited his old fraternity for which he’s an adviser.

The college is “moving in the right direction, but there’s more it could be doing,” Williamson said.

In response to questions I had about Dartmouth not taking up West Central’s offers to help, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence emailed on Friday, “we have been looking into the mobile crisis services provided by West Central.”

Dartmouth recently declared Oct. 21 a “day of caring.” Classes will be suspended to allow time to “grieve, learn, and comfort one another.”

At the very least, Dartmouth should invite West Central on campus that day to share its information.

The goal, Williamson said, is to give students “as many resources as you can.”

The 24/7 New Hampshire Rapid Response crisis line is accessible by calling or texting 833-710-6477. To chat online go to www.nh988.com.

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