This piece contains material about sexual assault policy that may be upsetting to some readers.
Columbia is falling behind its peer schools by failing to provide students with access to 24/7 in-person medical and mental health services. Harvard, Yale, and Brown offer after-hours urgent care, Dartmouth and UChicago keep a counselor on-call, and Princeton even has its own infirmary. Why, then, does Columbia’s health care system pale in comparison? The only in-person service the University claims to provide around the clock is support following a sexual assault. What this really amounts to, however, is a staff or peer advocate whom survivors can supposedly call and arrange to meet at any time, albeit without a specific space to go to on campus or access to in-person medical and mental health professionals. Columbia’s failure to provide a crisis center for 24/7 in-person medical and mental health services makes this campus hostile to survivors of sexual assault by leaving them without the resources they need following said assault.
The lack of consistent access to health resources at Columbia poses a problem for survivors’ well-being. Most of the Columbia and Barnard health care offices (Medical Services, Sexual Violence Response, Primary Care Health Service, Furman) operate only during business hours (Counseling and Psychological Services operates from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.), leaving students without resources during late nights and over weekends. Since this is the very time sexual assaults are most likely to occur, most survivors are left without access to on-campus medical and mental health support immediately following their assault. Such a lack of available treatment represents a total failure to address the needs of survivors. Assaults often leave their survivors with injuries or pregnancy concerns, which may need to be addressed immediately, and they are invariably traumatic experiences.
The only solution Columbia currently offers survivors of assault looking for a safe space overnight or on weekends is to go to the emergency room at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s for medical treatment. But the presence of a nearby hospital does not represent a suitable alternative for a 24/7 on-campus crisis center. Students on the Columbia or Barnard health insurance plans face co-pays of $125 and $150, respectively, for going to the emergency room, and those without insurance may face larger and less predictable expenses. Additionally, getting to St. Luke’s involves either walking off campus or calling Public Safety to get a shuttle. The first may feel terrifying in the dark after an assault, especially when alone or accompanied only by a stranger from SVR, but the only alternative is not an option for students who feel uncomfortable with police. Between students who can’t afford going to the emergency room and students who feel unsafe getting there, many survivors are left with no options for getting immediate medical help following an assault.
Even for those students who are able to visit St. Luke’s for help, the emergency room cannot adequately serve as a replacement for a crisis center because it is not a space to support survivors overnight. In looking for somewhere to spend the night, survivors may value feeling safe, rather than staying in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital (not to mention the possibility of being discharged). Going home may seem like an obvious choice, but survivors might not feel safe spending the night in their dorm room if they were assaulted in their dorm or if their perpetrator might know where they live. For such students, a 24/7 crisis center would represent a safe haven. As a campus facility monitored by health staff, survivors could confidently feel free from fear when staying there. Furthermore, access to mental health resources in a crisis center could help alleviate the oppressive terror and anxiety which follow such a traumatic experience. Even survivors who wish to return to their dorms for the night might appreciate having a 24/7 space where they could meet with those they want to talk to about their assault, that isn’t public like JJ’s Place or Butler Library, and where they have access to trauma support. Thus, a 24/7 crisis center is necessary to make sure that survivors have somewhere to go where they will feel safe and be able to have private discussions with trained professionals following an assault.
By failing to address the needs of survivors, Columbia’s health care system lets down a significant portion of its student body. The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, an investigation into sexual health on campus run out of the Mailman School of Public Health, showed an alarming prevalence of sexual assault among undergraduates. According to the SHIFT survey, nearly 28 percent of undergraduates experience some form of sexual assault at Columbia by the time they graduate, which means that almost 800 students experience sexual assault each year. Despite the pervasiveness of sexual assault on campus, the University persists in creating an environment where survivors are left without the basic health resources they need following an assault. While doing this, they also claim that “the model currently in place best meets students’ needs.” It’s time that Columbia fulfilled its obligation to ensure student welfare and created a 24/7 on-campus crisis center where students can access in-person medical and mental health services.
The author is a first-year at Barnard studying philosophy and women’s studies and is a member of No Red Tape.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Related: Executive Director of Student Health and Wellness Programs at Barnard Mary Joan Murphy responds to this op-ed]