Dear Lou Anna,

There are things you should know about your constituency, L.A. When the typical college student rolls out of bed (generally at some obscene hour of the afternoon), his or her mind seldom wanders the toll taken on the body. We all know that what we do to our bodies is generally wrong. We pull all-nighters studying for exams, stay up until the wee hours of morning partying, drink on weekdays and find ourselves grabbing a “fourth meal” at Taco Bell on a regular basis. Sometimes we sleep during classes, or better yet, are too lazy to walk to our classes.

So how is one to distinguish the typical college student from a person with a genuine health-related problem? According to MayoClinic.com, symptoms of depression include sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, impaired concentration and fatigue. What college student hasn’t missed a night of sleep, doesn’t feel like eating, can’t concentrate during class or falls asleep while reading a textbook? For this reason, it can be hard for the Residence Hall Association (an organization naturally concerned with the well-being of its residents) to identify people that are genuinely struggling with health-related issues like depression, alcoholism, eating disorders and anxiety, among others.

Usually it is up to the residents to tell their Resident Mentors or other hall staff members when they’re having problems. But once a student divulges they’re in need of assistance, what happens?

According to Yakeley-Gilchrist Assistant Hall Director Ashlie Daigle, the person’s problems are just shifted up the chain of command. “We have training that covers this, so we’re prepared to handle these issues,” Daigle said. “But we recognize that we’re not licensed professionals, and do our best to refer people to campus resources.” In other words, a Resident Mentor isn’t in place to actually solve the problems of residents… just to refer them to somebody that can help.

Most often, that helpful institution is the Counseling Center at MSU, located in the Student Services Building. Any current MSU student can make an appointment during the Counseling Center’s office hours, 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For untimely mental crises, the Counseling Center’s Web site offers numbers to a variety of on- and off-campus 24-hour hotlines, from an on-campus Sexual Assault Hotline to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

For some students, however, getting to these resources is difficult. Most students living in residence halls know their Resident Mentor is the person that’s supposed to help them with these kinds of issues, but people’s relationships with their mentors vary vastly. Pre-med freshman Nick Lippard describes his relationship with his mentor as good. “I see him all the time, and he says ‘hi’ to me,” Lippard said. “Maybe we’re not close, but we at least talk in the elevator and stuff.”

But this is not always the case. No-preference freshman Brian Griffin has never even talked to his mentor. However, this doesn’t seem to bother him. “I feel like I could trust him if I really had a problem,” Griffin said. And essentially, that’s what Resident Mentors are there for.

For her part, Daigle is aware her mentors’ varying degrees of intimacy with residents can have an impact on whether a resident feels comfortable coming forward with a personal problem. “If the resident sees their mentor as the person in the hall that puts fliers up, maybe they won’t feel comfortable,” Daigle said. “But if it’s more of a friend relationship, they may be more willing to tell them if they’re having problems.”

While the course of action a mentor or other hall staff member must take when dealing with personal issues is pretty clear-cut, the lines become foggier when personal situations involve alcohol. For instance, if a group of intoxicated and underage kids are in a dorm and have a friend with alcohol poisoning and decide to call an ambulance, hall staff will obviously be alerted to the situation when the ambulance comes. This then poses the question: do all of the students get in trouble for drinking underage, despite the fact they did the right thing in seeking medical assistance for a friend? According to Daigle, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

“It really depends on the situation,” she said. “Our first priority is always going to be the medical situation, but we also have to write down what happened [as far as intoxication] and report it to the complex director, who makes the ultimate decision.”

The problem is, L.A., that’s not a good enough answer. The current unclear policy sometimes causes unhealthy predicaments. “I’ve heard of instances where people are more interested in getting in trouble than helping out a friend in medical need,” Daigle said. MSU students in the past have shied away from seeking medical or police assistance in situations where it’s really needed, just because they’re afraid of getting a Minor in Possession of Alcohol (MIP) or similar offense.

Lippard admits he was once in a similar situation. “There was one night when a few friends and I got together, and after a night of drinking, we all decided to go to Taco Bell,” Lippard said. “On our way there, two completely unprovoked guys came up behind our group and chose to [physically attack] me. They knocked me down and punched me a few times. In any other instance I would have called the cops, but I felt that if I would have called the cops that night I would have gotten in trouble for having a blood alcohol content [level].”

Is this what students have been terrified into thinking? For some MSU students, figures of authority such as police or the Residence Halls Association, or RHA, have cultivated such an image of enforcers and punishers the average MSU student cannot think of them as helpful in a bad situation. If a student is afraid to approach his mentor with an alcohol-related problem, what guarantees that same student would feel comfortable approaching his mentor with a personal issue like depression or an eating disorder? The Resident Mentor has become both the immediate face of encouragement and enforcement. It’s getting confusing, L.A. In some cases, students are more afraid of getting in trouble than having a friend be harmed by alcohol poisoning, or in Lippard’s case, getting physically harmed.

Of course, cases like this sometimes come down to responsibility. But some students (especially students with slightly impaired judgment) fail to accurately assess their priorities. Daigle sets the record straight – “If you make a poor decision, there are consequences. Would you rather wake up the next morning with an MIP or a dead friend?”

But some feel the university should have a hotline through which people could seek police or medical assistance without the fear of getting personally charged with a misdemeanor. The university has hotlines for domestic violence, eating disorders and depression – why not intoxication, L.A? Inebriation can often result in dangerous situations, and these instances are not scarce on campus. As for Lippard, he would have appreciated such a phone number. “I definitely would have called it, even just to see what my options were.”

But in the case of alcohol-related incidents in the dorms, many students don’t realize an MIP is not necessarily the consequence for getting caught with alcohol on a first-time offense. “We’re kind of like parents in that we’re not getting you in trouble so that we can have fun,” Daigle said. “We just want you to be the best you can be.” So the punishments for many offenses are well-suited to the crime committed. “If you get in trouble for an alcohol violation, you might have to put up a bulletin board about alcohol poisoning,” she said. “The process is more educational than punitive.”

Nonetheless, you’ve assigned the RHA two difficult and opposing tasks, L.A. A student is supposed to go to his mentor with personal problems, but that same mentor can get them in a whole lot of trouble if they slip up and drink with their doors open. Nobody would advocate a person’s therapist be allowed to bust them for drug possession, or that a police officer be in charge of hearing a felon’s woes. But in the RHA, this mixing of roles clearly occurs, leaving residents unsure if their mentors are out to help them or catch them.

In some ways, the RHA is effectively helping its residents. Maybe the RHA can’t tell a sleepy college student from a depressed one, or a busy person from an anorexic one sometimes. However, with a few hints from its residents, the organization can make a world of difference. But let’s keep this is mind, L.A. – there’s no guarantee that, with this meshing of roles, students in the future will be willing to provide those clues.

Sincerely,
Needing A. Divide

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