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When the ‘really easy and fun parts of Princeton disappear’: A student mental health crisis and Princeton’s response

<h5>McCosh Health Center</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
McCosh Health Center
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The burdens of the past academic year caused a national mental health crisis for students this spring. Recent studies have found that depression, anxiety, and loneliness peaked for college students during the pandemic, and 83 percent of college students in the U.S. reported mental health “negatively impacted their academic performance.”

On Princeton’s campus, Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) recorded an all-time high in clinical appointments in March. In April, CPS joined the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and University Health Services (UHS) in signing a statement about prioritizing student mental health. The University administration also extended Dean’s Date, citing the “increase in student distress,” following the death of Kevin Chang ’23 at the end of the year.

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Princeton prides itself on its high academic standards, and even in a normal year, some students have difficulty managing these expectations while taking care of their mental health. But this past semester, some students felt they experienced these challenges on a much more universal scale.

“It’s been a really tough academic year for everyone,” said Anna Hiltner ’23.

“I know some people who took gap years for their mental health. I know some people who PDFed [Pass/D/Fail] all their classes for their mental health. They're doing things they wouldn't usually do, because college on Zoom is so challenging,” she continued.

In addition to the regular stresses of life at Princeton, students grappled with anxiety over the ongoing pandemic and national turmoil. Many also shouldered the weight of lost experiences on campus and a lack of opportunities for fun and stress relief, given the restrictions present in the University’s Social Contract aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19.

For Ella Gantman ’23, the cancellation of many extracurricular activities last semester made maintaining mental health even more difficult.

“The really easy and fun parts of Princeton just have kind of disappeared,” she said.

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Rimsha Malik ’21 also experienced a number of added stresses, particularly as a senior graduating during the pandemic.

“I’ve had multiple conversations with people struggling, who would normally not struggle at all. I think it also has to do with us being seniors too and knowing that this is how our [Princeton] careers are ending,” Malik said. “There’s been so many different factors that are contributing to poor mental health this semester for seniors especially.”

Students have made the extent of their mental health struggles clear — on social media, in asking for extensions and support from professors, and in print. Within The Daily Princetonian’s opinion section, students have written about burnout, asked for the University to roll back expectations of students, called on CPS to expand appointments and proactively reach out to students, argued for cancelling classes, and urged extensions for exams and Junior Independent work.

In interviews with the ‘Prince’, undergraduates and administrators reflected on a semester of intensified mental health struggles and how the University responded.

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Case-by-case: Administrations leave end-of-semester policies to faculty

In a memo to the faculty in April, following a rise in CPS clinical appointments during the month prior, Dean of the College Jill Dolan recommended that professors lighten workloads and consider student mental health when planning for the remaining weeks of the semester.

“When I wrote to people suggesting empathy and compassion, I wanted people to acknowledge that we have been teaching and learning under extraordinary circumstances,” she explained in a recent interview with the ‘Prince.’ “We know that students are stressed and anxious and we also know that faculty are.”

Some professors responded to these concerns with accommodations and flexibility, especially with end-of-year assignments.

“I think there are a lot of professors who completely understand that students are in different circumstances and don’t expect the same quality of work as they would pre-pandemic,” Hiltner said.

One anonymous student managing anxiety and depression expressed gratitude for their professor’s support.

“When I told my professor [about my mental health struggles], he automatically pushed back my assignment that was due that day without me asking,” they explained. “[He said], ‘if there’s anything else I can do to help, absolutely, please reach out to me,’ and he did give me CPS information.”

But in other cases, students have been dissatisfied with professors’ lack of leniency. Gantman felt that professors seemed to have more empathy for students in spring 2020 than in this past semester.

“Now it kind of feels like you should be used to it. I think that the standards are still really, really, really high,” she said.

Others expressed frustration that while the administration recognized that students were struggling, they left most decisions about academic leniency to individual faculty members. 

Malik felt particularly disappointed with the University administration’s outreach. “It’s just words, it’s not any action,” said Malik. “When I see [the University’s] emails, I [think] ‘oh whatever, of course they’re going to say that to make us feel better.’”

In response to calls for more forceful action from the administration, Dean Dolan stressed the University’s emphasis on faculty independence in teaching.

“There isn’t a lot of top-down oversight on how teaching works at Princeton, a lot of discretion is left to individual faculty,” she said. “Much of what the administration does is offer guidelines.” 

These guidelines — in Dolan’s words, “what are ultimately suggestions” — became a major source of frustration for some interviewed undergraduates.

This tension played out early in the semester in conversations surrounding spring break, which was shortened from nine to four days in order to limit travel during the pandemic.

As early as January, some students pushed back on this logic, saying the University should trust students not to travel during the pandemic, and should still give them the full week off. “This policy, along with the justification presented, shows that the University fails to see us as partners in protecting the health and well-being of our community,” Ahmed Farah ’22 wrote in the ‘Prince’.

Dolan shared Farah’s ‘Prince’ article in a memo to faculty soon after, telling faculty members that students would appreciate adjustments to their workload and if professors “avoid setting assignment due dates right after the abbreviated break.”

At a town hall three months later, however, she acknowledged that some instructors did not heed her advice.

Near the end of the semester, a similar scenario played out with end-of-year assignments. The administration’s extension of Dean’s Date granted faculty members flexibility to push back end-of-year assignments by up to five days. Many did, but some did not. Ultimately, Dolan emphasized that faculty members are largely independent in making decisions regarding the scheduling of coursework.

“We offer a host of things like best practices for teaching, best practices for end of the semester assessments. And I think because of the wisdom and the facility of our staff and McGraw, a lot of people take us up on those,” she said.

“I realized that what it means for students is that ... some faculty have moved to Dean’s Date, others didn’t. Some faculty have adjusted their final exams, others didn’t,” Dolan added. “But we have to let it be a local decision, according to what faculty think are the best ways to administer their final assessments.”

Department variation in grading policies throughout the academic year prompted a similar debate.

In a typical semester, students can take one class on a Pass/D/Fail (PDF) grading scale. Last March, the University allowed students to PDF any number of classes that offered the option and required departments to accept them. This past academic year, the University kept this policy, with one change: departments could again require that prerequisites and departmental classes be taken for a letter grade. 

“I think [grading policy] should come from the administration,” Hiltner said. “Some departments are allowing you to PDF departmentals while others aren’t, so I think the experience really varies.”

In the fall, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told the ‘Prince’ that the decision fell in line with standing University policy, where administrators leave grading responsibilities to the faculty who “have the best understanding of what is the appropriate method of assessment in their course and in their discipline.”

Dolan added that because some students were in favor of allowing unlimited PDFs in the spring and others were opposed, keeping the policy consistent across the academic year was the right approach in her view. 

“We’re trying to achieve some sort of middle ground, knowing that students on either side will not be fully satisfied, but we felt that committing to the policy as it is was the best thing to do,” she said.

Personal academic accommodations: What they look like and how students tried to get them

With decisions for course-wide extensions up to individual faculty members, some students have sought individual accommodations instead in the spring. For some, this meant talking to their residential college staff for short-term help such as extensions on assignments. For others, this meant going to the Office of Disability Services (ODS) for more permanent accommodations.

Emily McLean ’21 found that going through her college Dean proved the easiest way to get academic support. “I do feel like the professors generally respected [extension requests] more coming from a Dean,” McLean said.

Yet, one anonymous student conveyed feelings of anger and frustration over what they saw as a bureaucratic process required to receive long-term, personal academic accommodations. They were disappointed that after going to CPS for mental health concerns, counselors within CPS were not able to help them with academic support directly.

“Especially academically, there’s really not that much you can do unless you go off to the Office of Disability Services, which is tough, because that’s also a lot of paperwork to do, and it’s a long process,” they said.

The effort required to have accommodations approved can feel colossal at the beginning of the process, they noted.

“For someone with diagnosed anxiety [and] depression, doing extra paperwork, going out of your way to make more meetings and fill out paperwork and get forms from my therapist and ask questions and send emails — when I’m already struggling to get out of bed, go to class, do my homework, do my work, take notes, meet with friends — is adding another thing that’s on me to do; that is very hard,” they said.

For this student, academic accommodations are about more than granting immediate extensions. These accommodations are preventative, and allow for reduced strife when mental health issues need to take priority.

“When I’m having panic attacks, I just really want to be able to attend class with my screen off and not verbally participate and reschedule exams. When I’m [having a panic attack] I can’t properly function, focus, do work, I can’t talk during those either. So I can’t participate,” they explained.

Unlike immediate extensions, however, the timeline for acquiring longer-term accommodations necessary for some students can be longer. According to Hotchkiss, initial responses from ODS come “within two to three weeks depending on the volume of requests in process.”

“Each request is considered individually through an interactive process so the timeline could be shorter or longer depending on the complexity of the case,” he continued in an email to the ‘Prince’.

Hotchkiss further noted the additional resources students can access while waiting to receive accommodations from ODS. “While a case is being reviewed, students can communicate with their dean or DGS [Director of Graduate Studies] to discuss any available supports specific to their situation,” he wrote.

The anonymous student explained the burden they felt during this process, as well as the difficulties of sharing personal experiences with a number of adults they’ve only recently met.

“Almost a month later, once they process the application, I will have to do an interview with them to meet with me, so I can yet again with another person, tell them about all of my mental health struggles and how that’s affecting my life, my academics, and my general functioning,” they explained.

Getting appointments at CPS: Availability and accessibility

When faculty and administrators encouraged students to seek mental health support last spring, they did. In March of the past semester alone, CPS had 1,490 clinical appointments.

Malik had seen a therapist at CPS as a first-year and sought treatment again this past semester.

“I’ve been generally having a really good experience with them and they’ve been super supportive,” Malik said. “I would assume that they wouldn’t be as available because of how crazy this year has been. [But] the frequency of appointments has been the same as before.”

However, Malik acknowledged receiving consistent mental health care isn’t always as straightforward as making an initial appointment. “Not everyone has had a similar experience,” she wrote in a follow-up email to the ‘Prince.’

Some students said they were not able to get appointments at CPS as often as they needed them, while others dealt with the intricacies of insurance policies and off-campus providers.

Gantman experienced a long wait before she had her first appointment. “I reached out to CPS, and I signed up for [an] initial consultation. [It] wasn’t available for two more weeks. They were completely booked,” she explained.

Following this consultation, Gantman received referrals for off-campus therapists. But by the time she had researched the recommendations and scheduled the closest available appointment, over a month had passed since she initially needed support.

In an email to the ‘Prince’ in May, Director of CPS Dr. Calvin Chin commented on how CPS responded to the increased demand in the spring. “We added an additional part-time counselor in April to assist with the increased utilization at CPS,” he wrote.

This past semester, UHS also made efforts to avoid income disparities in mental health treatments. “We created an Exclusive Provider Network (EPN) of community therapists who agreed to accept the Student Health Plan (SHP),” Chin said in an email.

“Ordinarily, there is a $20 co-pay for mental health services with a provider on the EPN. During the pandemic, the co-pay was waived so students on the SHP could pursue telehealth psychotherapy with an EPN provider with no out-of-pocket costs,” Chin continued. This telehealth policy remained through the spring but ended on July 3 after Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order declaring an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Students living off-campus faced a unique set of obstacles in accessing mental health support in the spring. CPS is always available to students for at least an initial consultation, but cannot guarantee consistent online counseling due to cross-state practice laws. This posed an extra burden on some students seeking care this spring.

“At the beginning of the semester, I felt that I needed support so I signed up for a consultation with CPS,” Hiltner explained. “Halfway through the meeting, I mentioned that I was living in Washington D.C. and the guy had to break it to me that CPS could not help me because there are no counselors with a license where I am, and I think we were both disappointed.”

Despite this restriction, Chin said there was a process for setting up some off-campus students with providers in their area.

“CPS works to identify local referrals that students may use to access mental health treatment. We just launched Thriving Campus, a searchable database of therapists across the country that students can use if they are looking for a therapist,” wrote Chin.

“We also have professional networks that we can use to try to identify recommendations for students living all over the world,” he continued.

From very helpful to really frustrated: Experiences with CPS treatment

When students were able to connect with care at CPS, getting appointments didn’t mean the end of their battles with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. For some, appointments at CPS only added to their frustration.

For the anonymous senior managing anxiety and depression, CPS helped them through difficult moments. “When I finally got connected to [CPS], they were very helpful and things moved really quickly. So I think my experience is in general, [CPS is] kind of like slow moving, unless you notify everyone that it’s an emergency, then things move really quickly,” said the senior.

Once the senior met with a psychiatrist at CPS, they felt consistently supported.

“I finally got emergency meds that just calmed my situation down and then started regularly seeing people in CPS,” the senior added.

Urgency doesn’t prompt comprehensive care in every case, according to a second anonymous student.

In the middle of a school-day, after suffering a panic attack, this second student called the CPS urgent care line and asked if they could speak to a counselor after they finished class at 4:30 p.m. The urgent care responder said that the student could not receive care after their class and if they wanted to speak to a counselor, they would have to do so immediately.

So, in a brief break between classes, they spoke to a counselor over Zoom. The student gave their account of how the call went in an interview with the ‘Prince.’

“[The counselor said] ‘Well, I have another appointment; I only have 20 minutes to talk.’ But I was literally in the midst of a panic attack. I was on Zoom, crying and hyperventilating [and the counselor said], ‘Sorry, we have 20 minutes,’” the student said. “I just gave him a very brief rundown of my situation, what I was going through at the time. Then he pretty much just told me, ‘Well, you know, this isn’t a life or death situation. So you’re going to be okay.’”

“I just felt like all my feelings were invalidated at that moment,” they continued. “I know I’m not going to die. Yes, I understand that. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be sad about something. After he said that, I was just really frustrated.”

Without commenting on any specific incident, Chin responded to complaints of insufficient and rushed care from the urgent line and offered detailed statistics on how the urgent line handles calls.

“CPS provides access to counselors after-hours 24/7, 365 days a year. This past year, our after-hours counselors answered 581 calls. Of the 581 calls, 76.6% were answered within 30 seconds. The average speed of answer across the year was 41 seconds,” he wrote.

Yet, Chin acknowledged that the line does not always run so quickly. “Unfortunately, at our busiest times, the wait time between the initial contact and the transfer to a counselor can be longer,” he explained.

Regarding mixed student experiences with counselors on the urgent line, Chin cited generally positive student responses. “We have asked students for feedback about their experience with the after-hours counselor and the majority of students did indicate feeling satisfied or very satisfied,” Chin wrote.

Despite this reported satisfaction with the urgent line, a third anonymous student had to wait on hold for around 25 minutes before receiving care in a crisis moment. Once connecting with a counselor, they also expressed frustration with the treatment they received.

“In moments like that, I think you need someone to listen to you, but you also need someone to relieve stress, take something off your plate. The best thing for me in that moment would have been [the therapist saying], ‘hey, this midterm that you’re freaking out about, let’s just take it off your plate right now. Just focus on these other things,’” they said.

“And they couldn’t do that. They [said], ‘I’m sorry. I have no power to deal with your assignments or anything.”

Chin confirmed this limitation on counselors’ abilities to advocate for students’ needs in the classroom. “CPS counselors are not able to provide academic accommodations directly,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’.

But, there are ways CPS can help. “CPS counselors will often provide supporting documentation for students in their application for accommodations through the Office of Disability Services (ODS),” Chin wrote. “We also encourage students to speak directly with their Deans if they need other kinds of academic accommodations including extensions on their assignments.”

Confusing and scary, and scary because it’s confusing’: Mental health and the Social Contract

While struggling to take care of themselves and their mental health, students also said they dealt with the underlying anxiety caused by the Social Contract. Not only were they concerned with avoiding the spread of COVID-19, but students’ outlets for fun required significantly more effort to plan safely. Additionally, worries about disciplinary responses to Social Contract violations weighed heavily on undergraduates’ minds.

An anonymous student struggling with anxiety and depression captured the campus climate of the past semester. “I think everyone’s just living in a state of paranoia and also almost depression because we still have the same schoolwork that we had in the past years, but you don’t have the same outlets for having fun,” they said.

Keenan Duggal ’23 expressed similar sentiments.

“This semester, a lot of the stress wasn’t necessarily coming from the classes, it was coming from anxiety about, ‘Oh my God, did I just accidentally violate something? Or did I make a mistake?’ more on the Social Contract side of things,” Duggal said.

The number of students disciplined for Social Contract violations heightened these kinds of concerns — at least 249 students faced disciplinary action for violations last year.

In many cases, the new disciplinary process for the Social Contract caused students undue stress because of their unfamiliarity with it. The biggest complaints were supposed lack of transparency and the drawn-out nature of the process.

After being reported for having three guests in a room instead of two, an anonymous student with anxiety and depression was investigated by the Residential College Disciplinary Board (RCDB). The student said they met with their Director of Student Life (DSL) on a Thursday and was told they would get a decision on their case the next day. 

“When it was Monday, and I still hadn’t heard anything, I sent an email [asking for an update]. And that one went unanswered for a few days.”

By the following Thursday, according to the student, they were told they would have an answer on Friday.

“On Friday night at 2 a.m. I got an email. Each of us individually got an email saying you got whatever your punishment was. I got one year of disciplinary probation,” the student said.

But for this student, the stress of the disciplinary process did not end with this decision.

“There was no other support, no other information, no next steps with that [email]. I didn’t know who I was allowed to tell, and I didn’t really know what [disciplinary probation] fully entailed either. [The DSL] said that it was going to be on our permanent record but not our transcript and I still don’t fully know [what that means]. If I apply to grad schools in the future, do I have to tell them, I don’t know.”

“The whole thing is just confusing and scary, and scary because it’s confusing,” the student added.

Another anonymous student with depression had a similar experience in their disciplinary proceedings. “I got an email at 9 p.m. saying that I was getting charged with something, and it said that the disciplinary board was meeting at noon the next day. And suggested that I write a statement by noon the next day. They [said], ‘if you need extra time, we’ll give it to you, but we really need it by noon.’ So they gave me 15 hours to write a statement,” the student said.

When reflecting on this process, this student felt that it became needlessly stressful.

“It was just so dramatic and hard. My DSL just did not seem empathetic about anything. The DSL was not on our side and not supporting us,” the student said. “It’s so intense to be investigated, it’s so much anxiety and so much stress. It seemed like they just didn’t care.”

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Hotchkiss commented on the reported stress and confusion of Social Contract disciplinary procedures, and the role of the DSL within this process. 

“When Directors of Student Life meet with students regarding disciplinary inquiries, they typically state that they are meeting with the student to discuss a possible violation of University policy and that they are meeting with students in their disciplinary capacity. They also inform them that the potential violation of University policy will be heard by the Residential College Disciplinary Board [RCDB] and describe the process,” he explained.

Hotchkiss highlighted the ways that DSLs can support students following notification of students’ disciplinary outcomes.

“The DSL is also available to answer any questions that students may have about the penalty. After the determination is made by the RCDB, DSLs are available to speak to students who may feel distressed or concerned about the disciplinary outcome and to offer support,” he wrote.

‘Acknowledging our common humanity’

With some stressed with University policies and having difficulties accessing adequate mental health treatments, students often relied on each other for help.

An anonymous student emphasized the importance of having a strong support system on campus when dealing with anxiety and depression. 

“[My friends are] definitely the largest support on campus. The administration is not there for you. CPS is patting you on the back, but it’s not really doing anything,” they said.

Another anonymous student summed up their gratitude for their friends and family’s support as well as their hope that the University takes more action in the future.

“I am so very thankful that I have a really great support system in place … I just hope that the University can realize that the [social contract disciplinary process] has big effects on students’ physical health, mental health, academics, all of that, and reconsider its priorities in its dealings with students because not everyone is as lucky as I am,” they said.

In response to the student mental health crisis of the last semester, Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun recognized how much distress students faced and discussed their takeaways for future years. Calhoun acknowledged students speaking up about their mental health concerns.

“It’s been helpful for students to be vocal in the ways they have been through the ‘Prince’ and in other ways about what they felt like their needs were because we take that into consideration as well,” said Calhoun.

Dolan also recognized the difficulty of the historical moment of COVID-19, Princeton’s high academic expectations, and how balancing both can affect students’ learning experiences while at Princeton.

“There’s so much happening, that has also increased, not just student stress, but human stress over the course of this last moment. And we can’t just say, ‘well, we’ve got this rigorous curriculum, so deal with it,’” Dolan said.

“We have to figure out how to acknowledge our common humanity, while also maintaining our rigorous expectations,” she continued. “And that’s something that pandemic aside, I think all of us very much want to do.”

Editor’s Note: Several students were granted anonymity in this story due to their discussions of personal mental health issues and diagnoses 

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