The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Princeton students have rightly and ceaselessly decried the state of mental health on campus. The work of vocalizing pain is deeply important. But the many calls to action presented to the University to fix the problem in recent student op-eds published by the ‘Prince’ have felt to me vague or — in the case of calling on the University to grant free streaming services to students — misguided. And even praiseworthy, well-researched calls (like that of Associate Opinion Editor Eleanor Clemans-Cope from earlier this month) have the potential to be dismissed as unreasonable by unsympathetic critics. Here’s a concrete, achievable call: copy Rutgers University’s Next Step program.
I graduated from Princeton in the spring of 2022, having been supported by Princeton’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) for four years. Though my CPS experience wasn’t perfect, I felt profoundly lucky. I knew my experience wasn’t universal (more on that later). But I needed help, and I received enough to get by. My primary therapist, psychiatrist, and academic dean worked collaboratively together to help me manage my health enough to stay in school while dealing with the suicide of my teenage twin brother, a depressive mood disorder, and severe, recalcitrant struggles related to the two. The week of graduation, when I said goodbye to my therapist during my final session with him, I teared up from gratitude. I knew I wouldn’t have graduated on time without him, much less graduated summa cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
I also teared up from worry. Although I had gotten through Princeton, it wasn’t as if my illnesses were “cured” by the kind therapist I saw loosely every 2–3 weeks and the attentive psychiatrist I saw every few months. I knew I would still need mental healthcare when I left Princeton and started my doctoral studies at Rutgers University in the fall. If Princeton, with its huge endowment, could only employ enough healthcare workers to see students once every few weeks, I feared what healthcare system I would find at a New Jersey state school. My jaw dropped, however, when Rutgers provided me with healthcare resources that Princeton led me to believe university healthcare systems were unable to provide.
Rutgers’s Next Step is a community-based, enhanced care therapy program designed to work around students’ class schedules and keep students in school while receiving a higher level of treatment than weekly or biweekly therapy. Over the past month through Next Step, I’ve attended individual therapy once a week, small-group spaces with around three to five students four times a week, and I’ve been carefully connected to a skilled psychiatric team. I entered the program after seeking care from a primary care provider with Rutgers’ Student Health Center. They immediately connected me to a mental-health-focused social worker at the health center who was able to see me during the same appointment. The social worker and I met multiple times to slowly work through a variety of different treatment options for me. I was then connected to the Next Step program, at which point I had the best interaction with a therapist that I’ve ever had (and spoke for the first time to a therapist who had the same nonbinary identity as me). All of this was paid for through Rutgers’ Student Health Insurance with no out-of-pocket costs. The social worker’s message to me was “You deserve good healthcare. You can do more than just survive. You can get healthy, and we can get you there, together.” I hadn’t realized that was possible for me. And I would never have been able to imagine I could get this level of support while remaining in school.
Indeed, before discovering Next Step, I had been debating whether I should briefly enter a psychiatric inpatient program (i.e., hospitalize myself) or enter an intensive outpatient program (IOP). In my experience, New Jersey has a paucity of mental healthcare providers, and the only options I had found with availability were not best suited for my needs. The off-campus therapist I saw weekly in the fall of 2022 and the expensive psychiatrist I saw for 10-minute appointments every few months — (after being on the waitlist for over eight weeks) — had not been enough to help me feel like I was surviving in the way CPS at Princeton had helped me. I knew I needed a higher level of care, but the alternatives to what I was doing felt extreme for my circumstances. Even the shortest hospital stay intimidated me (their financial costs felt especially unclear). And though I was okay with the time commitment required by IOP programs, every nearby option I looked at dramatically interfered with my already set and unchangeable class schedule for the semester. Either option would have disrupted my ability to continue my academic studies for the semester, and especially given my primary source of income is my graduate student stipend, neither felt easily accessible. The fact that the Next Step program is run by Rutgers made it such that my student schedule was accommodated, the problem of financial access was solved, and I was given a path to connect with other university-related resources (like the Office of Disability Services) to ensure I could continue my studies if any special need arose.
So, in short: the University can do a lot more than just provide free streaming services to support students with mental illnesses. And the University can do even more than just increase the number of CPS counselors and diversify the body of CPS counselors so that more students could be helped to survive their years in undergrad the way I was helped. If the University wants to make the Ivy League accessible to those with mental illnesses and put an end to the mental health problems plaguing students — problems which feel intimately and horribly linked with the several student suicides of the past few years — then it should provide an accessible, extensive, University-run enhanced care option for students with mental illnesses. This isn’t an unfeasible or unreasonable call to action. If Rutgers can do it (and can see the reason for doing it), Princeton can too. This is how we do more than survive. This is how we get well.
And Princeton students: keep imagining a campus where quality mental healthcare is accessible to all. Dream big. And dream with concrete, serious, feasible plans aimed at improving student health. I can’t pretend that I have omniscient knowledge that providing an intensive treatment program would put an end to student suicides on campus. But I know this plan would help at least some students do more than just get by. And that’s the healthcare they deserve.
AG McGee ’22 graduated from the philosophy department and hails from Grand Rivers, Kentucky. They were a managing editor for the 145th Board of the ‘Prince.’ AG can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.