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Mental Health & The Election

News & Features | November 18, 2016

On the night of November 8, a palpable discomfort hung in the air at the Mayer Campus Center. Packed tightly into Hotung Café, Tufts students watched the election results pour in, as state after state turned red on the CNN screen. For the majority of Tufts students, who supported Hillary Clinton, this night was expected to be a celebration. Instead, as the clock turned to midnight, it became clear that Donald Trump would be the next President-Elect of the US.

Howard Woolf, director of the Experimental College, who hosted the Campus Center screening, sat on the Hotung staircase contemplating his closing comments. After midnight, Woolf walked to the center of the Hotung floor, the TVs muted behind him. His remarks attempted to restore some sense of power to students who felt shocked and frightened by the results. “How do you go about trying to make new things happen?” he said. “You don’t have to wait four years for another election, you can start to create social change now.”

“One of the clear things about this election is that America is a very fractured country and we don’t understand each other very much,” he continued. “This may not be the end of anything, it may be the beginning of something,” he said. “All right. Go home.”

On November 9, Tufts students received a variety of emails containing post-election resources. From the Chaplaincy to Counseling and Mental Health Services, several departments on campus recognized the feelings of anxiety that the election results produced for many students. At an institution that is overwhelmingly liberal and concerned with issues of social justice, many faculty, staff, and administrators recognized that Trump’s win would have an immediate and profound impact on Tufts’ campus. As a result, in the week following the election, the university has created numerous spaces for students to cope with their reactions, express their pain, and come together.

Tufts Counseling Service sent out a campus-wide message after the election regarding students’ mental health. Signed by Julie Ross, Director of Counseling and Mental Health Services, and Michelle Bowdler, Senior Director of Health and Wellness, the email contained suggestions for students who were struggling with the implications of the election results. Titled, “Post-Election Community Message,” the message contained “some suggestions for practicing self–care if you are experiencing stress.” These suggestions included “permit and accept what you are feeling,” “limit media consumption,” and “practice gratitude and hopefulness.”

Mental Health Services is especially responding to the ways in which the rhetoric used on the campaign trail has impacted students. “We are seeing a strong reaction campus wide,” Bowdler said. “I would say that this election had some pretty strong rhetoric and a lot of policies were put forth that impact large groups of people….a lot of students are reporting being upset, scared, and anxious. We want to respond to that.” It is natural that many students feel marginalized or targeted as a result—circumstances which often require seeking mental help to cope.

Mental Health Services also wants to respond to the needs of those who favored the election results, many of whom feel marginalized on Tufts’ liberal campus. “What we’re hearing from some of them is they feel concerned about people judging them or being upset with them in an environment where they may not be the majority,” Bowdler said. “They’re feeling vulnerable as well.”

Bowdler explained that, overall, this has been the busiest year for Mental Health Services, and not just after the election. “Mental Health Services this year is seeing a substantial uptick in volume, and that was before the election. We’re paying attention to it, really thinking through a variety of ways that we can give students the services that they need,” she said. But Bowdler was clear to reiterate that this shouldn’t deter students from seeking mental help. “That should not discourage people from reaching out because we want to talk to students who are distressed and address their concerns,” she said.

According to Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Chief Diversity Officer at Tufts, one student responded to the Mental Health Services email by saying that a similar email would not have been sent out had Hillary Clinton won. “I think this student is right, but not for the reason he insinuates,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “I think this is a problem of false equivalence. Hillary Clinton did not specifically target Trump-supporting populations with fear-producing rhetoric. Thus, expecting a similar reaction from Trump supporters would have been surprising. That said, if students who supported Trump had been so publicly traumatized at his loss, I believe the campus would still have offered support to them through similar means and resources.”

Generally, there was a movement among the Tufts administration to approach the post-election climate from a more community-centric perspective, opening up space for students to come together. The day after the election, a Post-Election Dialogue was held in the Rabb Room at Tisch College. Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, Tisch College, the University Chaplaincy, the Experimental College, and the Office of Student Affairs, the event was designed to host the Paper Project—an opportunity for students to express themselves through writing or art. The Rabb Room was covered in paper, offering a canvas for students to voice their thoughts.

Brimhall-Vargas explained how this event came to fruition. “The origins of the election-time dialogue programs sprang from a facilitator training I conducted with Nancy Thomas from Tisch College over the summer. In that training experience, there was widespread recognition that the campus was not really ready for the impact of THIS election, regardless of who won,” he said in an email.

Brimhall-Vargas acknowledged that this election held particular weight for many students on Tufts’ campus. Thus, his programming was based less on issue-based education and more on student self-expression. “Specifically, we realized that the traditional election programs focused on educating voters would be insufficient to address the worry, anger, fear and vitriol raised by the election.”

After the election results came in, the Post Election Dialogue was extended to allow more students to participate. “It was originally scheduled from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.,” said Brimhall-Vargas. “Because of the obvious need, we started at 1:30 p.m. that afternoon.”

Students seemed to appreciate that this space was made available after the election. “Students who came were generally in a very somber mood,” said Brimhall-Vargas. “They engaged the Paper Project with sincerity and respect.” Rev. Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain, said that students want to continue the dialogue that the Paper Project began. “Some students are thinking about making more chart paper available for continuing opportunities for expression and engagement over the coming days and weeks,” he said.

Independently, the Tufts Chaplaincy offered additional spaces for students to feel supported. “Given the divisions in American society that have become increasingly apparent over the course of the presidential campaigns, it was felt that opportunities for conversation and engagement following the election would be needed whatever the results were,” McGonigle said in an email. In response to student requests, Goddard Chapel was opened for prayer, meditation, reflection, and pastoral conversation on the day following the election.

Some of the Chaplaincy’s events were planned prior to the election while others were created as a reaction to the results. “Several campus religious and philosophical communities began adding programs or refocusing existing programs to address the results of the election, including the Muslim Students Association, the Humanist Community at Tufts, and the CAFÉ interfaith discussion group,” McGonigle explained. “The Tufts Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha was already planning to develop a healing mural for the first week of December, and it is likely that project will be shaped in part by the national climate.” McGonigle recalled an overwhelming sense of despondence from the students who attended the Chaplaincy’s events. “Many students who came expressed disappointment with the results of the election,” he said.

Rev. McGonigle emphasized that the role of the Chaplaincy and the role of Mental Health Services is different. “Counseling and Mental Health Services responds to student mental health concerns that might arise, while the University Chaplaincy seeks to respond to spiritual, ethical, and existential dimensions,” he said. He explained that the Chaplaincy focuses on providing space for reflection, discussion, and support—resources that are different, and can be used in tandem with, those of Mental Health Services.

Some see acknowledging the emotional, mental, and spiritual state on campus as necessary for progress to be made. Howard Woolf hopes that spaces for reflection will be breeding grounds for future action. “It’s great that students feel like the potential for these spaces to become available is real,” he said. “The emotional response is going to be with us for a long time and needs to be addressed.”