Northwestern University announced September 28 that The Women’s Center on campus would no longer offer on-site counseling. In an email that day sent to students, Provost Dan Linzer and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Jabbar R. Bennett, listed a number of changes that are being made due to lack of resources and an insufficiently sized staff. They noted that the workload had become overwhelming since the previous director of the center retired last year. Consequently, a majority of the mental health inquiries have since been handled by a single clinician.
Students and alumni are speaking out, saying this cutback creates a major gap in needed services. Not only is October Domestic Violence Awareness month, but the Women’s Center is also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. For many survivors of abuse, assault and other trauma, the center has long been a space of refuge. Kyra Jones, a 2014 Northwestern alumna and outspoken sexual assault survivor, sat down with The People’s World to express her concern over the planned changes, “the Women’s Center has been one of the few places on campus that provides free long-term, feminist counseling to students, and especially women of color.” Two weeks before her sophomore year of college, Jones was sexually assaulted by one of her close friends. During her time of crisis, she said, she turned to the Women’s Center in order to quickly access the resources she needed to deal emotionally with the aftermath of her rape.
Though Northwestern does have an independent counseling and psychological services office (known as CAPS) available, students report a number of issues in setting up immediate appointments. Many have found themselves put on a long waiting list before they are able to talk to a mental health professional. High demand for mental health services in a competitive academic atmosphere like Northwestern’s causes delays for many students seeking immediate help.
But delays in mental health services can carry a high cost. Several years ago, Jason Arkin, a student who admitted to having “fleeting thoughts of self-harm” to a Counseling and Psychological Services staff member, was waitlisted for individual counseling sessions. Arkin, a student in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, had been dealing with a number of mental health issues that had directly affected his school work. When he was contacted by CAPS in November 2012, he stated that he was not interested in being put on the waitlist. But two and a half years later, in May of 2015, Arkin took his own life. Since then, the CAPS program has been beefed up: according to the Daily Northwestern, “the CAPS staff-to-student ratio is now about 1 to 980, which lags behind the average ratio for peer institutions — roughly 1 to 945.”
Suicide on college campuses, is unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence – which is why resources outside of the standard counseling center remain crucial to the student body. Molly Benedict, a Northwestern senior, is the Executive Director of Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE) which works as affiliate of the Northwestern University Health Service, and focuses on developing networks among students. According to their official website, SHAPE provides education, organize events, and stimulate discussion and awareness on issues surrounding sexual health and sexual assault. Benedict said she knows firsthand some of the difficulties in dealing with urgent care resources. “It takes some time to book an appointment at CAPS, which means that [without the services at the Women’s Center] a lot of students will be forced to go off campus and into the city for crisis intervention.”
Benedict is also a sexual assault survivor and feels like the time commitment involved in seeking care adds to students’ burden. “it is difficult being a full time student and having a job, and then having to go off campus to find someone.” Jones points out that travel isn’t the only issue. “Finding a counselor that understands the culture of sexual violence and the strain of Northwestern’s highly competitive environment is so difficult – which makes these spaces [such as the Women’s Center] even more critical.”
In January, Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post about the need for safe spaces. His stance was applauded by leftist groups and his advocacy for marginalized student populations was highlighted in the national conversation surrounding campus racism. It seems, however, that without necessary resources, spaces like the Women’s Center lose their sense of security and value. Schapiro wrote: “I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable.” Providing a safe space for students to be comfortable does not seem to be the current situation with the CAPS center on campus. “There have been students who were kicked out of school because CAPS deemed them mentally unfit,” says Jones. “The university will make decisions on behalf of students, and it makes people hesitant to go there.” People’s World reached out to the Office of the President about the current state of affairs at the Women’s Center and has not received any response from Schapiro.
Until the matter of the Women’s Center is resolved, students on campus are left with few options. Mental health and wellness should not be put on the back burner by institutions of higher learning. Northwestern University is no different, and must repair this loss for victims and survivors on campus.