An Open Letter to President Biddy Martin

Dear President Martin and the Board of Trustees of Amherst College:

As the discussion regarding Amherst College’s policies on sexual respect develops on campus, we urge the College to evaluate its broader institutional commitment to student well-being—a commitment that includes, but is not limited to, reforming administrative policies regarding sexual misconduct. Angie Epifano’s courageous and horrifying account of her sexual assault and its aftermath highlighted several problems with the way in which the administration handled a case of not only sexual misconduct, but also student mental health. We write to express our concern that the disconcerting experience Angie described in attempting to work with the school and its available resources for the sake of her psychological well-being is not a singular case of mishandled student distress, but in fact represents a broader collection of negative student experiences with the College’s current mental health resources.

We write this letter as individuals with different backgrounds, friends, and commitments on campus. Our connection stems from our shared experience of having been left wanting more from Amherst’s mental health services during our time at the College. Our experiences are different, but many of us have experienced or know someone who has experienced first-hand the failings of our school’s resources to respond appropriately or helpfully to our own or our friends’ mental health needs. Shortly after the publication of Angie’s story, many students began to come forward with their own accounts pertaining to their experiences primarily with the Counseling Center, but also with members of the Dean of Students Office. Some of these stories, which were mostly told in conversations online, have been collected below and we wish to share them with you:

• “[The Counseling Center] told me I was ‘too much to handle’ and that I should stop coming.”
• “[I’m] so glad I was referred away [from the Counseling Center] before they could do any worse.”
• “I stopped going to the Counseling Center due to this concern and paranoia… It’s tough when you can’t even trust the Counseling Center to act in your best interest.”
• “I want to go to the Counseling Center but they would probably send me to a ward like they did to Angie so I can’t.”
• “[The Counseling Center therapists] keep avoiding what you wanted to talk about and bring up something totally unrelated, develop that into a ‘problem’ and pretend to be concerned.”
• “Or they refuse to see you, telling you that you have ‘too many issues’ and should see someone in town. Quite a slap in the face to someone who just braved the terror of asking for help…” The student was too frightened by the Counseling Center’s reply and never found “someone in town.”
• Students have on many occasions acted as “therapists” for their friends who were turned away by the Counseling Center. In one student’s words: “Being told that you are more effective than the Counseling Center is frightening.”
• A student asked to change therapists. The student’s request was denied, and the student never returned to the Counseling Center.
• A student who served on the Mental Health Task Force with “two of the counselors… was always immensely frustrated, offended, and saddened by their attitude toward students. They were constantly defensive, denied that there was any problem with the Counseling Center’s operation, and refused to have any constructive discussion about what could be better–even in the face of substantial evidence of student dissatisfaction.”
• “As an RC…I felt a great deal of discomfort knowing that the service to which I was referring students was the Counseling Center. I saw some residents for an hour or more every week for months on end—essentially taking on the commitment of a therapist—because other resources had failed them, or because I did not feel confident in the available resources’ ability to help these students.”
• Friends of a student at risk for self-injury contacted Campus Police and ACEMS for assistance. Despite many calls, they were unable to reach the Dean on duty that night.
• A student struggling with an eating disorder decided to seek help from the Counseling Center at the beginning of February. The student was told that there were no openings for the rest of the semester and that s/he would be put on a waiting list. Two weeks later, the student was placed on medical leave for four semesters.
• A student who met with a Dean for help with family problems, panic attacks, and severe anxiety was told to purchase a day planner, insinuating that the student was just trying to get out of doing work. The Dean called the Counseling Center, which had no available appointments for a month, and refused to act further.

• Many students additionally voiced concerns about Amherst’s policies on sending students home on medical leave, with some admitting that they are afraid to talk about their problems fully, for fear of being sent home. This stems from a perception that the administration has a knee-jerk response of forcibly sending students home at the slightest mention of suicidal thoughts. While we are aware that College policy requires that the counselor follow a strictly defined protocol as to what behavior constitutes an imminent threat to the student, we are also aware that perception rather than policy has deterred students from coming forward at moments of crisis. For some students, being sent home to recuperate is not a solution to their problems; in fact, home can be an unstable, dangerous place and a main source of their problems.

We hope that our inclusion of these accounts does not detract from cases in which the Counseling Center and the administration have made the right decisions, nor is it our intent to demonize every administrator and counselor at Amherst as callous and uncaring. We know that many students have had positive experiences with the College’s resources and realize that the accounts we have provided are anecdotal and in many cases provide experiences that run contrary to established College policies. We cannot claim to speak for all students and acknowledge the ease with which these anecdotes could be written off as a merely a few bad cases. However, we respectfully urge the College not to do so—particularly given our understanding that the Mental Health Task Force (a group commissioned by the Dean of Students office) conducted numerous student focus groups, and that a broad theme of dissatisfaction with the College’s mental health resources emerged in the task force’s findings, in addition to an understanding that similar concerns were raised following Jenny Kim’s suicide in 2008.

These accounts, provided here and collected previously, send an overwhelmingly clear message: many Amherst students perceive that the College’s mental health resources are inadequate and feel discouraged from seeking the help that they need. While student misperception may partially account for this pervasive belief, it is clear that some of this dissatisfaction is indeed due to inadequacies of current policies and practices. Students who are suffering, frightened, and help-seeking need to be able to trust the administration to act in their best interest, to provide adequate resources, and to respect students’ ability to evaluate their own conditions. As with cases of sexual misconduct, the administration cannot sweep students’ sincere issues with the handling of mental health cases under the rug. Amherst College has an obligation to provide for the mental health of its student body, and we hope that further steps taken toward meeting this obligation will not be built upon expediency and evasion, but rather upon community-wide respect and cooperation.

We do appreciate the steps the administration has made to address this issue, as in the creation of the Mental Health Task Force. However, we also suggest that, as many of us were unaware of the Mental Health Task Force’s existence or its accomplishments, more publicized and transparent steps need to be taken. Therefore, we would like to make the following preliminary recommendations to the administration in hopes that they may lead to concrete policy changes:

1. We call for a thorough and transparent evaluation of the Counseling Center, the services it offers, and its personnel. While internal reviews may have occurred in the past, neither findings nor subsequent changes have been made public to the student body or the alumni community. Greater transparency and oversight will be necessary to change students’ negative perceptions of a valuable on-campus resource.

2. We call for additional resources to be allocated to the Counseling Center and other support programs in order to make mental health services more accessible for all students. For instance, one or more new counselors specializing in post-traumatic treatment would be invaluable in encouraging survivors of sexual assault to seek help from the Counseling Center. Likewise, a general increase in staff and service hours, especially during traditional “off-hours” like evenings and school breaks, will expand appointment availability, reduce the number of students who would have to be “turned away” to see someone in town, and ensure that health resources are available during the times that students are most in need.

3. We invite students, faculty, and staff to a public discussion regarding the College’s mental health resources and the larger perception of mental health problems within the community as a whole. Amherst College has a diverse student body, and our backgrounds and personal experiences with mental health differ significantly. Our shared enrollment at Amherst does not grant us a single, shared understanding or experience of mental health, and we believe it will be beneficial to the community as a whole to have an honest dialogue about psychological well-being. We understand that President Martin has called public meetings, and we laud her efforts on this front.
We hope that through the discussions suggested in our final recommendation, we will work as a community to direct our attention to not only policy, but also culture. At elite institutions such as Amherst, and in our nation in general, we face many challenges presented by a prevailing culture of silence and pressure to maintain a façade of perfection. We are aware that students are often uncomfortable speaking out about struggles with mental health, partially for fear of being labeled inadequate and their experiences dismissed as a part of the “Amherst experience.” If we are to truly transform the mental health environment of our college, we must encourage the growth of a culture in which all Amherst students can live free from shame or guilt for speaking up and seeking help for their own psychological well-being. Students who seek help from the Counseling Center or elsewhere should be commended rather than disparaged for having the courage and presence of mind to recognize that they need assistance. To this end, we ask for the College’s support to foster an environment where we may all live, learn, and thrive without fear. Noting the paramount importance of faculty involvement in efforts to reshape the Amherst culture, as the College is a faculty-governed institution, we hope that this support will come in part from cooperation of the faculty community.

We strongly support the efforts the administration has made to address issues of sexual respect and we hope that this energy will carry forward in efforts to improve the way the College handles the broader issues of mental distress on campus. The challenges that we are facing today are by no means unique to Amherst, but we are in a unique position to stand up and come together for who we are as a community and where we want to be. We write in shared love of Amherst College, and we hope that the administration takes recent events as a chance to lead our peers in the charge toward comprehensive mental health support.

Spencer Adams ’13
Amal Ahmad ’12
Dede Ainbinder ’12
Adam Alfandary ’10
Amal Al Saadi ’11E
Cathrina Altimari-Brown ’11
Jorge A. Alvarado ’12
Holda Anagho ’14
Anjali Anand ’11
Christina Anderson ’13
Hayley Anderson ’12
Aaron Aruck ’11
Sarah Ashman ’14
Razina Aziz-Bose ’14
Benjamin Babbott ’10E
Haneui Bae ’13
David Baird ’14
Elizabeth Baseman ’11
Samuel Bell ’11
Abigail Bereola ’15
Kate Berry ’12
Caitlin Blais ’14
Ben Boatwright ’14
Walker Boyle ’13
Mary Elizabeth Broadbent ’10
Catherine Bryars ’12
Salena Budinger ’15
Hilary Cullen Budwey ’13
Alexandra Burkot ’15
Tatiana Butler ’10
Timothy Butterfield ’12
Tian Buzbee ’13
Katie Byrne ’12
Mary Byrne ’15
Aubrie Campbell ’14
Anqi Cao ’16
Patricia Cardenas ’14
Daniel Carrizales ’14
Sadie Casamenti ’11
Zinovia Chatzidimitriadou ’11
Sarah Champion MHC ’14
David Chen ’11
Ruqian Chen ’13
Chidi Chiemelu ’13
Jean Choi ’15
Tamara Chu ’11
Dong Kyu Chung ’10
Timothy Clark ’12
Dan Cluchey ’08
Jenna Colazzi ’12
Benjamin Colón ’12
Ioanida Costache ’12
Zoë Crabtree MHC ’15
Meaghan Crisman ’14
Diana Cruz ’15
Kendahl Damashek ’10
Aftaab Dewan ’12
Alex Diones ’14
Sonum Dixit ’13
Marron Doherty ’11E
Arjun Downs ’13
Kristina Doyle ’11
Molly Doyle ’11
Isabel Duarte-Gray ’09
Rachel Edelman ’09
Julia Eichenfield ’12
Samantha Ellingson ’09
David Emmerman ’11
Paula Escobar ’13
Saskia Fabricant ’09
Luis Feliz ’13E
Rosalind Fennel ’12
Kyle Ferendo ’15
Matt Fernald ’13
Leah Fine ’12
Alison Flint ’11
Julia Fries MHC ’09
William Froehlich ’14
Gavin Front ’12
Robert Flynn ’13
Jake Garbarino UM ’14E
Adon Garcia ’05
Ethan Gates ’12
Camile Gharib HC ’15
Cara Giaimo ’11
Angelina Gomez ’14
Asa Goodwillie ’16
Alissa Graff HC ’14
Taylor Grant-Knight ’13
Lehua Gray ’12E
Hannah Greenwald ’14
Rachel Gross ’08
Carmella Guiol ’09
Nguyen Ha ’13
Elizabeth Hall ’14
Taylor Haney ’12
Ben Heidenreich ’06E
Ian Herold HC ’14
Cheryl Herrmann ’13
Brigit High ’12
Rebecca Hollander ’11
Maile Hollinger ’15
Susanna Holmstrom MHC ’14
Clare Howard ’10
Ophelia Hu ’12
Rebecca Hu ’12
Zhuqing Hu (Lester) ’13
Jenna Iden ’13
Adil Islam ’11
Katie Jablin ’12
Michelle Johnstone ’12
Shyloe Jones ’14
Pierre Joseph ’15
Andrew Kaake ’14
Ambika Kamath ’11
Saugat Kandel ’12
Conrad Karsten ’14
Caroline Katba ’15
Cecilia Kelly ’09
Julie Keresztes ’12
Adam Ketchum ’13
Risalat Khan ’13
Brian Kim ’12
Jane Kim ’13
Jeong Yeop Terence Kim ’14
Joseph Kim ’14
Minjoo Kim ’13
Maria Kirigin ’14
Sandy Klanfer ’09
Allison Koo ’14
Jeremy Koo ’12
Fabiana Kreines ’12
Priyanka Kumar ’13
Surya Kundu ’09
Annah Kuriakose ’09
Phyo Aung Kyaw ’14
Zelda Lacoss SC ’13
Esther Lam ’13
Luke Lavin ’13
Olivia Lawrence-Weilmann MHC ’16
Ricki Lehrer MHC ’09
Raphaela Levy-Moore ’10
Kathryn Libby ’11
Christopher Lim ’12
Patricia Lipton ’12
Anne Lipton Keener ’08
Cynthia Lopez ’13
Andrew Lopshire ’12
Natalie Lubsen ’13
Beccie Magnus ’13
Kimberly Maize ’11
Dee Mandiyan ’10
Gianna Marciarille ’15
Maia Mareš ’14
Katrin Marquez ’14
Miranda Marraccini ’12
Yasmina Martin ’14
Madeline Marucha ’14
Thomas McClintock ’11
Brian McFeeley ’12
Kathryn McKinnon ’11
Michelle McPherson ’13
Luke Menard ’12
Laura Merchant ’15
Emily Merlino ’15
Adriana Meza ’12
Yenifer Mezquita ’15
Benjamin Miller ’12
Samantha Miller ’08
Michael Milov ’14
Rena Milton ’15
Ervin Mitchell ’12
Conny Morrison ’12
Nedia Morsy ’14
Ana Lucia Murillo ’14
Peter W. Murphy ’08
Alexander Myers ’10
Janie Myhre ’12
Yasmin Navarro ’10
Charlie Newman ’16
Montgomery Ogden ’09
Rebecca Ojserkis ’12
Kayleigh O’Keeffe ’12
Rachel Om ’13
Ivonne Ortega ’12
Mizuho Ota ’13
Junhua Pan ’13
Cecilia Pessoa ’14
Trevor Pinho ’11
Josey Prior ’16
Shenglan Qiao ’13
Leslie Quiroz ’13
Sylvie Ramirez ’14
Camille Ramos-Klee ’12
Carson Reed ’09
Lucas Rénique ’15
Steve Reynolds ’13
Alison Rich ’13
Freya Riedlin ’09
Ariana Robey-Lawrence ’12
Hyunsun Roh ’15
Catherine Rothacker ’12
Julia Rothacker ’16
Megan Rothe ’14
Ryland Richards ’13
Ian Rockwell ’13
Ashley Rose ’07
Katharine Rudzitis ’15
Alison Safran MHC ’14
Emma Saltzberg ’13
John Samuels ’13
Jean Santos ’12
Luisa Santos ’14
Brittany Sasser ’08
Benjamin Schneider ’14
Samantha Schnell ’11
Erik Schulwolf ’10
Molly Scott ’13
Anna Seward ’14
Destry Maria Sibley ’09
Jeremy Simon ’13
Lilian Smith MHC ’09
Scott Smith ’09
Crysta Song ’14
Sabrina Song ’13
Ashley Soto ’11
Christopher Spaide ’11
Maddy Sprung-Keyser ’13
Hanna St. Marie ’11
Wesley Straton ’11
Alex Strecker ’13
Robert Suits ’12
Joseph Taff ’13
Nancy Yun Tang ’14
Michiko Theurer ’11
Stephanie Thompson ’13E
Shannon Townsend ’14
Hana Tran ’14
Kaytee Turetsky ’12
Brooks Turner ’12
Kearney Turner ’15
Madeleine Anne Veninger MHC ’14
Elena Villafana ’14
David Vitale ’13
Katie Vincett ’13
Julia Vrtilek ’15
Thanh-Nhan Vu ’13
Claudia Wack ’13
Jess Wall ’12
Yilin (Andre) Wang ’14
Brian Watson ’13
Jacqueline Watson ’12
Kayla White ’14
Keith Wine ’12
Jacob Worrell ’12E
Jenny Y. Xiao ’15
Jennifer Yeh ’10
Tara Yoo (Hee Hyun) ’15
Sukhee Yoon ’11
Jordan Young ’15E
Timothy Yuan ’15
Maria Zaragoza ’12
Nicol Zhou ’10
Sarah Zimmerman ’09
Hana Kommel ’10
Sarah Schear ’12
David Sze ’13