Upon reading the opinion piece by “anonymous” in The Stanford Daily’s Commencement print edition and the follow up article by Brian Contreras on June 16, I felt anger at The Daily for publishing two pieces that call into account our integrity, because the editors know that in cases such as this Corinne Thomas and I cannot defend ourselves through rebuttal of specific claims due to our obligation to protect the confidentiality of anything relating to student mental health and work performance. Publishing these pieces puts us in an asymmetrical bind, where we are unable to reveal specific information that would counter the specific allegations put forth.
What we can do, however, is refute the general allegation in the opinion piece: that as resident fellows we discriminate in appointing staff on the basis of mental health. I will be categorical here: Corinne Thomas and I do not discriminate against candidates for staff positions on the basis of mental illness. Confidentiality precludes naming names, but we have selected students managing their mental health to be on our staff in the past. In those cases, we felt that the candidates met our general selection criteria: empathy, trust, maturity, communication, teamwork, leadership and follow through. And we have supported staff who experienced mental health issues while on staff. We have also counseled numerous — countless over the years — residents who have come to us to share that they are having difficulty with their mental and emotional health, and we help and support them as best as we can. The emotional and mental wellbeing of students is an essential part of the safety net role that resident fellows play.
The opinion piece accuses us of promoting “an environment where stigma around mental illness thrives.” This would come as a shock to any student we have supported over the years, and anyone who knows me and my personal history.
Growing up I suffered twice from severe depression — when I was 12 and then again when I was 15. I hoped that it would never come back, but it did when I was 32 in my first teaching job at Washington University in St. Louis. It was so severe that I was hospitalized for over three weeks in mid-December 1989. My department gave me a very generous sabbatical for the spring semester, despite having to scramble to find someone to teach my lecture class in international relations.
At the time I was the only person in my department teaching international relations. The course had about 150 students signed up for it. Eventually a newly hired faculty member on leave graciously volunteered to teach the class.
At the time — almost 30 years ago — there were powerful incentives to keep mental illness quiet. At Washington University many more students suffered from depression and other mental illnesses than sought help. So I asked my fill-in if I could give the first lecture of the class to discuss why I would be on leave for the semester. I had a lot of advisees and students who had signed up for the course, and I felt that I owed them an explanation as to why I wouldn’t be teaching.
I used that lecture to discuss my experience with depression; to talk about its symptoms; and to talk about the need for anyone feeling those symptoms to get help. It was as hard and draining a lecture as I’ve ever given.
In my mailbox, later that day, I received a note from a student. Twenty-eight years later I still have it.
Dear Professor Stedman:
I attended your PS214 class today. I found your lecture tasteful and courageous. I want you to know that you are not alone in concern for depression or alone in experiencing it. I’m sure you already know that but for me it helps to be reminded. Last year I was almost expelled for poor grades due to depression. Many long talks with the Dean got me another semester to prove myself. Thank goodness I feel better this year – and my grades show it.
Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I respect you for your openness and I think many other students would say the same. It made me feel good knowing that some of the faculty has genuine concern for the students and I would like to return that favor by saying that I have genuine concern for you, and I wish you the very best.
Later that year a student at the Washington University campus radio heard about my lecture and asked if I would appear on a popular interview show to talk about my experience, arguing that it would increase the openness around depression. I did that too.
During our 15 years of being resident fellows, Corinne has known that she can tell of my experience to students who disclose mental and emotional difficulties they are experiencing to us. And I have been willing to share that experience with them so that they know, despite how bad things feel in the short time, that they will get better, that they are not alone and that they can get help.
Confidentiality precludes us being able to speak to why and how we make appointment decisions to be on staff. We never share who we rank nor the rank order with other staff or students. And in Crothers, we do not automatically reappoint staff; we interview all staff interested in returning. I can only talk in general terms about how we evaluate RA candidates. In general, here is what we look for: Can we trust the candidate with a lot of authority and freedom to do their job? Do we think the candidate will be a good team member, will communicate well and accurately and be inclusive of other team members; will the candidate hold up under the stress of dealing with crises? Is the candidate empathetic? Do they listen well and understand where others are coming from? Staff members cannot be self-centered. We have to believe that a candidate will be a community-builder — among the 22 fellow staff, among the residents on their hall and for Crothers as a whole — all 380 residents.
I want to return to the ethics of The Daily’s decision to publish these pieces. The Daily fails to ask the important question: Did this situation result in “anonymous” receiving a staff appointment based on a list of their preferences? An answer to this question would go a long way to address the question of discrimination. In the strange absence of asking this question, publishing the op ed and the article amplifies a narrative of victimhood that argues that those who suffer from mental illness should in fact keep it to themselves and not avail themselves of all the resources that Stanford’s safety net has to offer. Such an implicit endorsement is based on one-sided allegations and anonymous remarks where members of Residential Education staff who take their professional obligations seriously cannot comment.
These pieces contain very strong allegations and attack my wife’s and my character and integrity. But the editors know that in cases involving mental health or work performance of individual residential staff, we cannot share any specific details that would cast doubt on the narrative presented or tell a backstory to help readers judge the veracity of the allegations. This is license for character assassination.
This is now an occupational hazard for anyone who works to help students. Any student for any reason can make accusations that then become almost impossible to refute publicly. Corinne and I are lucky in one sense. This is the first time that we’ve suffered this indignity in 15 years of being resident fellows. In Crothers alone we’ve had almost 200 staff members and over a couple thousand residents cumulatively. In Larkin we had nearly 40 staff and about 600 students. For us the relationships that we’ve forged with staff and residents over the fifteen years far outweigh our distress caused by these pieces. We know the good we do and we know its value. We do worry though about those who are starting out in residential life who may have to deal with a similar attack without having the long-term experience to know that mentoring and counseling students is still worth it and immensely rewarding.
Resident Fellow, Crothers