Valley News – Jim Kenyon: When it comes to mental health, Dartmouth College says ‘no thanks for the help’

Before its 24/7 mobile crisis response team hit the road in January, West Central Behavioral Health reached out to schools, police departments and hospitals to let them know about the only service of its kind available on the Upper New Hampshire side valley.

Seen as a much-needed new tool in the suicide prevention toolkit, West Central’s commitment to more on-the-ground work has been welcomed by government and public institutions.

With one exception: Dartmouth College.

The college’s response “was kind of inadequate in our view,” West Central CEO Roger Osmun said when we spoke Wednesday.

Last summer, Doug Williamson, a retired Alice Peck Day pediatrician who chairs West Central’s board, contacted Heather Earle, director of the Dartmouth Counseling Center.

Earle was “very enthusiastic, but once she started moving him up the administrative ladder, she got nowhere,” Williamson, a 1985 Dartmouth graduate, told me Thursday.

“I feel like Dartmouth is worried about losing control,” he added. “They try to do everything themselves.”

In light of recent tragedies on and off campus, Dartmouth’s we-have-it-covered stance 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 spoke about, among other things, efforts to improve mental health services. “One size will never fit all,” said Scott Brown, Dartmouth’s interim dean.

The Dartmouth Counseling Center offers 24-hour mental health crisis services. The center’s Web page has a long list of phone numbers for national helplines and emergency services in the Upper Valley, including Hanover police and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center emergency room.

But there’s no mention of West Central’s mobile crisis response team or New Hampshire’s 24-hour emergency response line, which also launched in January.

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

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

New Hampshire’s new 24/7 mental health call center is connected to the state’s expanded network of mobile crisis teams. Trained staff take calls from people experiencing mental health crises — or from anyone who reaches out on their behalf.

After assessing the caller’s needs, mental health professionals decide whether to send a crisis response team. (West Central’s seven-member team includes mental health clinicians with master’s degrees.)

“You don’t need insurance. You’re not going to get a bill,” said Osmun, a psychologist who was named West Central’s CEO in 2019 after working for 22 years at a behavioral health nonprofit serving the Philadelphia suburbs.

West Central has adopted what Osmun calls the fire department model: “Our people are up and working at two in the morning.”

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

Dartmouth announced Thursday that it is partnering with Uwill, a student teletherapy provider, to provide free access to mental health services via phone, video and chat, starting Nov. 1. This “comes in the midst of a growing mental health crisis across the nation and as the campus mourns the loss of several community members,” the college said in a news release.

Which brings me back to West Central. The Lebanon-based nonprofit, which has been providing outpatient mental health services since 1977, can offer something Dartmouth cannot.

Some students may not feel comfortable seeking mental health help from the institution that in many ways controls their lives and futures. If they seek counseling, is it part of their college record? Who at Dartmouth potentially has access to this information?

“Those things shouldn’t be barriers” to students seeking help, Osmun said.

According to the counseling center’s webpage, it follows a “privacy policy that respects privacy and promotes better health care.”

However, the advisory center goes on to say that “if we believe you are in imminent danger of serious self-harm, we may communicate with other providers, college or safety and security administrators, other public safety departments, or your family.”

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

West Central isn’t giving up. Williamson recently contacted an administrator in the office of student life. He also visited his old fraternity, of which he is an advisor.

The college is “moving in the right direction, but there’s more it can do,” Williamson said.

In response to questions I had about Dartmouth not accepting West Central’s offers of help, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence emailed Friday, “we have been looking into the mobile crisis services provided by West Central.”

Dartmouth recently declared October 21st “Day of Caring.” Classes will be 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 their information.

The goal, Williamson said, is to give students “as many resources as you can.”

The 24/7 New Hampshire Hotline is available by calling or texting 833-710-6477. To chat online, go to www.nh988.com.

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