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VCU Activists Say School’s Commitment to Mental Health Is Hollow

George Floyd’s death sparked nationwide calls to defund the police, but in Richmond, Virginia student activists have persistently been trying to reallocate police funds to social services since the death of Marcus David Peters.

Richmond’s Police Department fatally shot VCU alum Peters on May 14, 2018. The 24-year-old African-American man was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed by Richmond Police Officer Michael Nyantakyi.

Commonwealth Attorney Michael Herring closed Peters’ case in 2018 after ruling his death an “act of  justifiable homicide.” VCU students and Peters’ family, however, argue that Peters was clearly having a mental health crisis as he was naked on a highway and that he wasn’t a threat to society because he was unclothed and clearly unarmed.

Since his tragic death, some Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) activists claim the university’s commitment to the mental well-being of students has been hollow.

VCU’s chapter of the Virginia Student Power Network is one of the most vocal organizations calling for mental health awareness in Richmond following Peters’ death. VCU Student Power demands that those suffering from mental health struggles be recognized and treated, rather than vilified and viewed as threats.

VCU Student Power

VCU Student Power activists have called for the establishment of a community-based mental health crisis alert system, named the Marcus Alert System, after Peters. The system would dispatch trained mental health professionals to respond to those having mental crises, as opposed to officers with no psychological counseling qualifications. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he would consider the formation of an alert system. 

VCU students and Peters’ family argue that if such a tool had existed in 2018, Peters would not have lost his life. Neither Richmond’s nor the VCU Police Department (VCUPD) would comment on Peters’ circumstances.

VCUPD currently does not have plans to help advocate for the creation of a Marcus Alert System. However, Jan Atman, Executive Director of VCU’s IExcel Education program, confirmed that VCUPD separated their mental health crisis dispatch from their police department in May 2020. 

While student activists are happy that VCU has created a separate dispatch line, they still feel as though the policy circumstances that led to Peters’ untimely death have not been addressed, and could occur to another member of the Richmond community. 

Lacking VCU Counseling Services

Student Power has also asked VCU to increase the number of guidance counselors available for students. VCU has 22,000 undergrad students but only 17 working counselors. 

Under the counseling center’s current model, the university has one counselor per 1,771 students, despite the nationally recommended ratio for large universities like VCU is 1 counselor for every 1,000 students. This recommended ratio would bring the number of counselors employed by the university to 30.

Student Power argues that because VCU’s staff numbers are below the national recommendation for counselors, VCU students who need guidance and support are unable to access the help they pay for and require.

For example, the wait time to get an appointment may be upwards of a month, and the appointments being capped at 30 minutes leaves no time for adequate analysis or support.

Junior bioinformatics major Rishitha Chilakapati told The College Post that when she needed to speak with a counselor, she was unable to make an appointment for a few weeks. “By that time, I had already gone back home to my parents,” Chilakapati said. “I couldn’t handle being on campus without any support. It was pretty frustrating.”

Executive Director of University Counseling Services Jihad Aziz told The College Post that VCU currently employs 17.5 senior clinical staff positions, 10 student interns, and two post-doctoral residents.

“The university has been very supportive of the mental health needs of students and has consistently provided funding for additional counselors,” he said.

Aziz declined to address the likelihood of VCU adding additional clinical staff positions. 

“VCU Counseling wants what’s best for us,” said junior Ren Dickinson to The College Post, “but they don’t seem to be recognizing the added stressors students today face.”

Mental health awareness is often neglected and disregarded within communities of color, viewed as an obstacle to be conquered similar to racism or discrimination.

VCU Student Power demands that mental health struggles be validated as a problem that needs support and treatment, rather than a hindrance or disability that must be tolerated.