Kenyon College Cuts Peer Counselors

By Josh McClain

I write today as a Kenyon student, a member of the Kenyon community, and – it’s important to note – as a Peer Counselor.

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By Josh McClain

I write today as a Kenyon student, a member of the Kenyon community, and – it’s important to note – as a Peer Counselor.

Let’s begin with some background. The Peer Counselors (PCs) are a student group that exists to provide mental health support to other students and to connect our peers to mental health resources at Kenyon. To do our work effectively, we receive training from the Counseling Center in an intensive multi-day session before the school year begins and additional trainings almost every Sunday that we’re on campus. We maintain a 24/7 hotline for Kenyon students – they can always call with any mental health concern. We offer support and, when needed, contact the necessary professionals. We also help run small group sessions to offer continued collective support to students struggling with specific mental health issues (self-harm and body image are two consistent small groups, for example). The PCs don’t pretend to be professionals or experts. We are students and peers, albeit with some training, offering a helping hand. We may not save or change lives, but we do work every day to make the campus safer, healthier, and kinder. The PCs, for what it’s worth, are also among the best people I’ve met at Kenyon. Being a PC has made me a better person, a better student, and a better member of this community.

At this time, it seems very likely that the PCs will not exist, at least not in any recognizable form, at the beginning of next school year. I hope you’ve already seen the articles on the coming changes run by the Collegian and the Thrill (if you haven’t, they’re worth reading). Suffice it to say that, by banning the hotline and small groups, as well as requiring extensive reporting on any interactions with students, the administration is systematically and effectively dismantling the role and organization of the PCs on Kenyon’s campus.

As the Observer is primarily a political publication, let me point out something that I’ve learned in my political science classes. It’s this: policy is the product of moral choice. I’ll say that again. Policy is the product of moral choice. We might think about that broadly – how we approach healthcare or taxation on a national scale – but it’s true at every level of administration in every organization, including Kenyon. The choices we make about what we fund, what we allow, what we support, are moral choices. They reflect our view of the world, our place in it, and our relationship to others.

It’s hard for me not to see Kenyon’s dismantling of the PCs, then, as something more fundamental than a failure of policy.

The intent of the administration, so far as I can make it out, is to limit liability. That’s a reasonable and necessary aim – of course the college, like any organization, must consider its legal exposure. But if questions of liability are going to simply and seemingly without question – certainly without student input – overrule questions of quality of life and community, Kenyon might as well shut its doors now. For Kenyon to reduce the attempts of students to support their peers to a question of liability is for Kenyon to betray its ethos of community and ignore its own statements, found all across admissions materials, that Kenyon students are intelligent and capable individuals. For Kenyon to reduce students struggling with mental health to liability concerns is wrongheaded and shows a pervasive and deeply  perturbing lack of concern for providing sufficient mental health support.

What’s more, the PCs have consistently been more than willing to work with administrators to address their concerns. We proved that last year when our leaders worked out significant additions to our training so that we could be confidential resources for Title IX issues. We’ve displayed our flexibility throughout this entire process by proposing solutions: waivers for the PCs themselves and pre-programed messages on the 24/7 hotline stating the limits of our ability to help, to name two examples. I have a fundamental belief that students, as a core part of this community, deserve a real and respected seat at the table for major decisions. Even if I set that belief aside, though, I genuinely don’t know what else the PCs could have done as a student group to earn or deserve the right to be included in a sincere, solution-oriented decision-making process.

My concerns are twofold, then. I find the administration’s conclusion that liability is seemingly more important than support for mental health disturbing. I also find the decision-making and communication process used by the administrators involved in this change to be demeaning, destructive to any sense of community, and antithetical to any sincere attempt to find collaborative solutions.

I really don’t think that was the intent of the Kenyon administration – or at least of the majority of administrators. I also know that administrators reading this article may think that it’s somehow inaccurate or unfair – that I’ve reached the wrong conclusion, or that I shouldn’t be upset. Here’s what I’d say to that. I am representing my experience honestly and sincerely, without exaggeration or hyperbole. I’m not someone who simply hates rules. I understand that liability is a real concern that must be considered in conjunction with our other values and prerogatives as a community. I care a great deal about Kenyon. This is my considered statement about my concerns for my community. So perhaps, just perhaps – with all of those things being true – it’s worth reevaluating this decision and the process that was used to reach it.

If you – student, administrator, parent, friend, alumni – think so, reach out to President Decatur’s office. Take a second to let him know.  decatur@kenyon.edu (740) 427-5111

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