‘Just not enough’: Pomona students rally for improved mental health care

More than 100 students rallied at Pomona College’s Smith Campus Center on March 11 to demand improved mental health services. (Ian Poveda • The Student Life)

More than 100 students rallied at Pomona College’s Smith Campus Center on Monday to demand that the Pomona administration improve services for students with mental health issues, especially students from marginalized communities.

The rally was organized by a coalition of 5C student groups under the name Students for an Accountable Pomona.

“It’s not enough to admit low-income students, it’s not enough to admit students with disabilities, it’s not enough to admit black and brown students,” said Daniel Garcia PO ’21, an executive board member of First-generation and Low Income Scholars, one of the groups that organized the event. “I feel like we’ve just been admitted and not accepted here; we’re not being supported, we’re just being used for statistics.”

On Feb. 6, Garcia published an op-ed in TSL urging Pomona to establish a summer bridge program to better integrate incoming first-generation and low-income students. Subsequently, a coalition consisting of FLI; College Community Action Network; Mental Health Alliance; and Disability, Illness, and Difference Alliance launched the rally.

In a document released online prior to the rally, the organizers outlined four concrete demands: the reinstatement of full coverage of off-campus therapy co-pays for students on the Student Health Insurance Program after a pre-existing program was canceled last fall, a Pomona-specific therapy program to relieve long wait times at Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services with at least four on-campus therapists, two full-time disability coordinator positions and a summer bridge program.

Under the slogan “Nothing about us without us,” students at the rally stressed the need for transparency and accountability from Pomona’s administration.

On this important issue of mental health, there are many and growing needs,” Dean of Students Avis Hinkson said in an email to TSL prior to the rally. “We welcome all voices, and are continuing to consider ways to address the concerns that have been raised.”

Pomona does plan to hire one new disability services director to begin work in the fall, Hinkson said.

“I’ve been involved with DIDA for two years now, and the whole time I’ve been here there’s been consistency among Pomona students having really bad experiences with disability services,” DIDA leader Manya Singh SC ’19 said prior to the rally.

Singh praised Pomona’s decision to hire a disability services director, but said more needs to be done.

Diana Rodriguez PO ’19 and Rene Valenzuela PO ’20 pose with a sign demanding transparency from the Pomona administration at a Smith Campus Center rally for improved mental health care March 11. (Ian Poveda • The Student Life)

Shayok Chakraborty PO ’19, co-leader of CCAN, criticized Pomona’s lack of transparency in reducing funding for off-campus therapy.

“We don’t know [why full coverage was rescinded], especially considering we do seem to have quite a bit of money, everyone’s throwing around this $55 million gym thing,” Chakraborty said. “How is it we [are able to raise] money to do that, but we don’t have money to fund off-campus therapy, especially when we seemed to before last summer?”

$20 million of the funds for the new athletic center were donated specifically for that project. Pomona plans to cover the remaining costs with $9 million in additional fundraising and $26 million from the school’s renovation and construction account.

Students at the rally also raised complaints about Monsour.

“Monsour is just not enough,” MHA co-president Bita Tristani-Firouzi PO ’21 said prior to the rally. “Long wait times, and the therapists are not super high-quality. Some of them are still in training. The turnover rate is very high at Monsour.”

Wait times at Monsour, according to the organizers’ document, were three to four weeks for therapy and two and a half weeks for psychiatry at the end of last month. Students are limited to eight therapy sessions a year. Monsour does offer same-day appointments to students in immediate crisis.

“At [Monsour], we support students’ right to express their opinions and advocate for change,” Monsour Assistant Director Fiona Vajk said in an email to TSL prior to the rally. “We at [Monsour] are aware that the wait is currently about four weeks for a new intake appointment, and we are concerned about access issues, just as students understandably are.”

Vajk said Monsour is working to fill vacancies as soon as possible and has contracted with some therapists in the short-term.

At the rally, more than a dozen students shared personal stories of unsatisfactory encounters with Pomona administrators about topics including mental and emotional health care access and affordability; difficulties faced by LGBTQIA+ students, disabled students, undocumented students and students of color; and Pomona’s leave of absence policy.

Brendan Barrow PO ’21 said that after approaching Monsour for help with his depression, he was referred to an off-campus psychiatrist who accidentally over-prescribed him for medication and failed to tell him about side effects. In his speech, he blamed Monsour for not properly vetting the off-campus specialists they refer students to.

“I think it’s really impactful to hear people’s stories,” said Rachel Lau PO ’22, who attended the rally. “I’m hoping this isn’t just an echo chamber; I’m hoping that people who have the power to make a change are listening, and that they’re actually going to consider the stories being told today.”

Biology professor Frances Hanzawa, who attended the rally, said she felt Pomona is not keeping its promises to students.

Dean of Campus Life Christopher Waugh was also in attendance.

“Processing the different narratives and stories … I’ll definitely be thinking about this and processing it with other students and staff, this week and beyond,” Waugh said.

Hinkson’s office did not respond to a request for comment after the rally before press time.

This article was last updated March 13 at 6:03 p.m to clarify information.

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