Students denied request to start mental health peer support groups

The Northwestern administration denied two students who tried to create a chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness. The organization is focused on creating services for individuals who suffer from mental health issues.

Source: NAMI screenshot

The Northwestern administration denied two students who tried to create a chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness. The organization is focused on creating services for individuals who suffer from mental health issues.

Rebecca Savransky, Assistant Campus Editor

After about five months of planning, drafting and updating proposals to abide with administrative requests, two students were denied the opportunity to start a mental health support group on campus.

Bienen junior Emily Fagan and Weinberg junior Supriya Bharati said at the beginning of the year, they both became interested in starting a Northwestern chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization focused on advocating for and supporting individuals with mental health issues.

“Our plan was to have a safe space where those people could come together and meet one another and feel like they’re a part of something and they’re not alone,” Fagan said.

After communicating with the administration for several months, the students received an email Tuesday telling them they would not be able to bring the idea on campus.

According to the email, several administrators researched the organization’s chapters at different universities and looked more closely into the students’ proposal. Natalie Furlett, associate director for the Center for Student Involvement, wrote in the email that the University could not support a NAMI chapter because administrators were concerned about students offering peer support services without extensive training. 

In the email, Furlett wrote that NU officials reached out to administrators at several other universities, many of whom told her the purpose of their NAMI chapter was to host speakers and programs, noting none of the other chapters had peer support groups. 

“They thought there would be too much of a liability,” Fagan said. “They were so worried that we wouldn’t have a plan in case someone wanted to hurt themselves so then we asked them, ‘What are your plans for other groups?’ And they just never really had an answer.”

Furlett; Todd Adams, dean of students, and John Dunkle, Counseling and Psychological Services executive director, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Through the process, the students said they also had the support of the Associated Student Government president Ani Ajith, NU Listens and several other student groups on campus.

Ajith said he met with Fagan and Bharati several times to discuss their idea. He helped connect them with the Center for Student Involvement in order to gain University recognition, he said.

The administration needs to make sure the proposed ideas will not present a liability, be discriminatory or violate any University policies, Ajith said.

“We always want to support efforts related to improving mental health awareness, resources, conversations on campus,” he said. “We would love to see as many students as possible who are interested in engaging these efforts but we also want to make sure that it’s done in ways that are sustainable and are safe.”

Fagan said after suffering with mental illnesses for years, she wanted to support others going through similar experiences. Through conversations with students, she said the most common sentiment she heard was their strong feelings of loneliness.

After following the protocol to start a new student group including finding an adviser, filling out forms and meeting with members of the administration, Fagan and Bharati said administrators became unresponsive and failed to show up at scheduled meetings.

After consistently asking how to alter or add to their idea to make the group a viable campus option, the students said they were given no feedback and were ultimately ignored.

“We would ask ‘What is wrong? What can we change?’ and they never really had an answer,” Fagan said.

Fagan and Bharati said they also communicated with members of the NAMI chapter at Syracuse University, which put on similar programming, and the NAMI Chicago chapter, which gave them support and guidance about how to go about the process.

In the email, Furlett acknowledged the students efforts and encouraged them to try to partner with NU Listens or Active Minds while on campus and told them they were free to engage with NAMI Chicago on their own.

However, neither of those campus organizations offer a peer support group, the pair said.

Fagan and Bharati said since receiving the email, they do not plan to take any further action to begin the support group on campus. After sacrificing their participation in other activities and their academics to organize this group, they were not prepared to continue petitioning the administration, they said.

“We’re totally burnt out,” Fagan said. “We’ve seen that arguing and trying just doesn’t help anything. We tried. I think that’s the important part.”

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