Valley News – Jim Kenyon: On mental health, Dartmouth College says ‘no thanks for the help’

Before its 24-hour mobile crisis response team hit the streets in January, West Central Behavioral Health reached out to schools, police departments and hospitals to let them know about the unique service available on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley.

Seen as a much-needed new tool in the suicide prevention toolbox, West Central’s commitment to more outreach has been welcomed by government and community institutions.

With one exception: Dartmouth College.

The college’s response “kind of fell short in our opinion,” West Central CEO Roger Osmun said when we spoke Wednesday.

Last summer, Doug Williamson, a retired Alice Peck Day pediatrician who heads West Central’s board, contacted Heather Earle, director of Dartmouth’s counseling center.

Earle was “very excited, but once she started making it up the administrative ladder, it was going nowhere,” Williamson, a Dartmouth 1985 graduate, told me on Thursday.

“I have a feeling Dartmouth is afraid of losing control,” he added. “They try to do everything themselves.”

Given recent tragedies on and off campus, Dartmouth’s “we’ve got that covered” attitude is troubling.

Following the announcement of two student deaths in late September, 500 members of the Dartmouth community gathered outside the library as college leaders discussed efforts to improve mental health services, among other things. “One size will never fit all,” said Scott Brown, interim dean of Dartmouth.

Dartmouth Counseling Center provides 24 hour psychiatric crisis services. The center’s website has a long list of phone numbers for national 911 and emergency services in the Upper Valley, including the Hanover Police Department and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center Emergency Department.

But no mention of West Central’s mobile crisis response team or the 24/7 New Hampshire Rapid Response crisis line, which also launched in January.

I’d like to think the omissions have something to do with the services being brand new.

In a state not known for high spending on social services, New Hampshire officials last year approved $52.4 million in contracts with the state’s 10 mental health centers. West Central, which includes southern Grafton County and Sullivan County, saw its state allocation increase to $3 million from $1.4 million. It also raised private money to support the crisis team.

New Hampshire’s new 24/7 mental health call center is part of the state’s expanded network of mobile response teams. A trained staff takes calls from people with mental health crises – or from people calling on their behalf.

After assessing a caller’s needs, psychiatrists decide whether to dispatch a crisis response team. (West Central’s team of seven includes mental health physicians with master’s degrees.)

“You don’t need insurance. You won’t get a bill,” said Osmun, a psychologist who was named West Central’s CEO in 2019 after spending 22 years at a behavioral health nonprofit that served suburban Philadelphia.

West Central adopted what Osmun calls the Firehouse model: “We have people who are up at 2 a.m. and working.”

The two-person teams drive unmarked vehicles and wear casual clothing to meet callers at their homes, street corners, parking lots, or wherever people prefer. “Ideally, we should be able to keep 99% of people safe and in the community,” Osmun said.

On Thursday, Dartmouth announced it was partnering with Uwill, a teletherapy provider for students, to provide free access to mental health services by phone, video and chat starting November 1 across the nation and as the campus mourns the loss of several community members “, according to a press release from the college.

That brings me back to West Central. The Lebanon-based nonprofit, which has provided outpatient mental health services since 1977, can offer something Dartmouth can’t.

Some students may not feel comfortable seeking mental health help from the institution that in many ways controls their lives and future. If they seek counseling, is that part of their college records? Who in Dartmouth might have access to this information?

“These things shouldn’t be obstacles” for students seeking help, Osmun said.

According to the counseling center’s website, she adheres to a “confidentiality policy that respects privacy and promotes better healthcare.”

However, the advice center goes on to say that “if we believe you are in imminent danger of seriously harming yourself, we may communicate with other providers, college administrators or Safety & Security, other public safety departments, or your family.”

Because of this, some students may not want to “go through the Dartmouth system,” Williamson said.

West Central isn’t giving up. Williamson recently contacted an administrator at the Office of Student Life. He has also visited his old fraternity for which he is a consultant.

The college “is moving in the right direction, but more could be done,” Williamson said.

In response to questions I had about Dartmouth not taking up West Central’s offers of help, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence replied by email on Friday: “We’ve been looking into West Central’s mobile crisis services.”

Dartmouth recently declared October 21st as “Care Day”. Classes are suspended to allow time to “mourn, learn, and comfort one another.”

At the very least, Dartmouth should invite West Central to campus that day to share its information.

The goal, Williamson said, is to provide students with “as many resources as possible.”

The New Hampshire Rapid Response Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day by phone or text at 833-710-6477. To chat online go to www.nh988.com.

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