Students take charge of mental health conversation on campus

Emma Discher, Senior Staff Reporter

Update: Senior Shefali Arora meets with President Fitts to discuss mental health issues

After helping to launch the “Dear President [Michael] Fitts” letter campaign, senior Shefali Arora met with Fitts Thursday morning to discuss mental health issues affecting Tulane’s campus.

The “Dear President Fitts” letter campaign consisted of 56 pages of students’ stories, which led to Undergraduate Student Government passing legislation to make a formal meeting with Fitts for the beginning of the school year, which will be held Jan. 20.

Arora took action immediately after receiving the email Fitts sent out on Nov. 22 notifying the Tulane community of Mary Travis’ suicide.

“I just told [Fitts] that I was almost an email he’d have to send out about a student lost to suicide and something needs to be done to help students in need,” Arora said. “[Fitts] then reached out to meet me and hear me out.”

Arora spoke to The Hullabaloo about her struggle with mental illness in a Dec. 3 article. She said she believes her personal experiences gave her a new perspective to offer the administration.

“I think based on my own experiences with [Counseling and Psychological Services] and Student Affairs I was able to offer the perspective of someone who has been through the system and has a firsthand account of what needs to be changed,” Arora said.

Fitts said he thought the meeting with Arora was successful and that he looks forward to continuing the discussions on mental health issues into next semester.

“My meeting with [Arora] was productive and helpful in continuing the university-wide discussion currently underway at Tulane regarding mental health awareness and care,” Fitts said. “I am looking forward to participating in the mental health roundtable discussion between student leaders, mental health care professionals and senior university administrators.”

Arora said she believes Fitts was receptive to hearing student opinions and that she wants students to continue speaking up about mental health issues and promoting awareness.

“I’d like to see students continue to support each other and [work] to de-stigmatize suicide and mental illness,” Arora said. “[We must] create a safe, supportive space for all members of the Tulane community.”

Original Article

Following several recent student suicides, senior Shefali Arora, junior Renata Voci, sophomore Sam Rich and senior Fernando Ramos opened a door for conversation about mental health on Tulane University’s campus through two different initiatives.

Arora and Voci began the “Dear President Fitts” letter campaign, which collected hundreds of letters to President Michael Fitts from students sharing their experiences and suggestions regarding mental health issues and services on campus, and Rich and Ramos created Undergraduate Student Government legislation based on the letters to implement action.

Update by Brandi Doyal | Print News Editor

Dear President Fitts…

Arora said she has struggled with ongoing mental health issues, and it has compelled her to use her experience to help others. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the end of her freshman year, and she has attempted suicide by overdose twice, once during her sophomore year and again this semester. 

“[Last time the nurses in the emergency room] made me drink charcoal so that it would absorb the pills rather than my system,” Arora said. “I remember because it’s really sticky, and in between cups I asked if I could have a drink of water and the nurse said, ‘Honey, you don’t have time.'”

Arora and Voci decided to email Fitts about their concerns and frustrations after the news of another suicide rocked Tulane’s campus. After realizing that they were not the only ones dissatisfied with university services and response to mental illness, they decided to start the “Dear Fitts” campaign.

Arora and Voci posted a public Google Doc on various Tulane Facebook groups around 3 a.m. Nov. 24, just a few hours before Arora’s meeting with Vice President of Student Affairs Dusty Porter. Voci, who is currently studying abroad in Italy, watched the online document fill up with stories within minutes. 

“It was amazing watching it happen,” Voci said. “I was running through trying to make sure that it was formatted correctly, which pretty much meant that I was reading it in real time. We were so surprised by not only the amount of people that wanted to put forth their stories but also the incredible depth [of the stories].”

The document contains 56 pages of both anonymous and attributed stories of students’ struggles with mental illness and experiences seeking help for it. Many suggested reforms within Counseling and Psychological Services and resident advisor training, as well as implementing new programs, such as an on-campus 24/7 suicide prevention hotline.

Common complaints involved long wait times for appointments at CAPS and unhelpful treatment strategies like medicine prescriptions or forced medical leave from the university. 

Many letters also discuss concerns about training for resident advisors. Voci, who previously served as an RA, said she agreed that more training would be beneficial.

“We had some great training sessions,” Voci said. “There’s just a lot of room for improvement. It’s not that what we have now is bad … but it’s not good enough. That’s what we’re hoping will be changed.”

Fitts said he thinks that the “Dear President Fitts” campaign is extremely important for improving resources.

“The information and personal stories on the Google Doc, along with conversations and emails I have had with students on the issue of mental health, are vital to learning what we are doing right, as well as how we can improve the counseling and support we provide for our students,” Fitts said. 

Legislation: USG141203

After Arora’s meeting with Porter, Undergraduate Student Government Senator Sam Rich and USG Vice President of Student Life Fernando Ramos separately reached out to Arora to discuss the letters and develop USG legislation. Rich said he wanted to get involved after talking with other students regarding concerns about mental health on campus.

“I really want to see an increased collaboration between the administration, CAPS and the student body to make sure that the mental health issue that is becoming so prevalent right now is addressed with President Fitts and the administration,” Rich said. “I think it’s one thing to say something, but it’s another thing to do something.”

The three met to discuss the outline of the legislation, which passed at the USG meeting Wednesday night after a series of amendments.

“We talked solely on this piece of legislation [Wednesday] at the meeting for more than two hours, trying to develop something that’s as encompassing and inclusive as possible,” Ramos said. 

The legislation calls on Fitts and the Tulane administration to first review the “Dear President Fitts” letters and then review them at a meeting in January with mental health administrators on campus like CAPS Director Donna Bender and Student Health Director Scott Tims, as well as members of USG and seven students-at-large. These students will be selected by a group of USG members on an application basis.

After the discussion, USG will host an Issue Summit on Mental Health. The legislation also asks Fitts and the administration to reform CAPS based on the letter and research from climate surveys. Finally, it calls for “increased collaboration” between the Student Health Advisory Council and Student Health Services.

Improving, promoting on-campus resources

Ramos, a public health major, teamed up with senior Lauren Barr last semester to create SHAC to focus on improvements in the Student Health Center, The Center for Wellness and Health Promotion and CAPS. Bender said that since her arrival at Tulane in January, CAPS has been evaluating current procedures and implementing new ones.

“We have been very much monitoring and evaluating how things have been going as we’ve been evolving our services,” Bender said. “The input from the students has been very, very helpful for us to know. Some of the changes we’ve made this semester, we’ve actually managed to see significantly more students this semester than last year, and last year we saw a lot of students.”

TheWELL is hosting the event “Tulane Cares, You Matter” on Thursday to support students’ mental well-being and educate them about resources on campus.

The day begins with a gathering in Pocket Park from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to promote resources for students. There will be a webinar series at 2 p.m. on promoting mental well-being and the day will end with a candlelit vigil on the Lavin-Bernick Center quad from 5 to 6 p.m. Everyone is encouraged to wear yellow for mental health awareness. 

“I look forward to continuing this university-wide conversation at the Mental Health Awareness day we are hosting [Thursday],” Fitts said. “I encourage students and all members of the Tulane community to attend the gathering at Pocket Park, the webinars and the candlelight vigil and continue to share their ideas and insights into how we can increase the care, compassion and support for our friends and colleagues who may be struggling with mental health issues.”

Voci said that Arora has received an immense amount of support since sharing her story and starting the campaign, and she hopes that this support can spread across the entire Tulane community.

“Why doesn’t this extend in our community, especially within Tulane, where someone can share their experience and receive all of this love?” Voci said. “That’s the kind of campus that I would like to see, where this isn’t just a one-time thing. I want this to be a consistent thing.”