Inside the fall 2019 removal of Nina Mattson
This article was updated on Oct. 23, 2020, to include a correction to Director of Boe House Steve O’Neill’s reason for declining to provide comment on Mattson’s firing. O’Neill did not offer comment for reasons of personnel privacy, not personal reasons. The correction is reflected in the current version of the article.
Content Warning: mention of suicide
Nina Mattson ’95, St. Olaf alumna and former counselor at Boe House Counseling Center since the fall of 2018, didn’t know what was wrong when she couldn’t log in to her school email account on Oct. 18, 2019. Mattson soon went from baffled to devastated after a message to her personal email from Director of Boe House Steve O’Neill ’80 revealed the unexpected news: She was fired, only a week after she traveled onto campus to assist a suicidal student during the night. Mattson’s record had been without incident, and Boe House gave her no warnings before her termination.
The College’s policy for assisting suicidal students after hours is to call Public Safety, according to O’Neill. Public Safety has provided transport for a student to Northfield Hospitals and Clinics (NHC) under a counselor’s direction on very few occasions, according to Director of Public Safety Fred Behr.
Consequences for breaking this protocol “depend on the circumstance,” O’Neill said, but did not elaborate. The consequence for Mattson, in this case, was employment termination.
After leaving Boe House, Mattson became suicidal and was hospitalized for five days. She didn’t practice for six months as she attended individual and group therapy. “Professionally I had some self doubt about my ability to do the job,” Mattson said.
Although sad to lose her position at her alma mater, Mattson has recovered and continues practicing with a new perspective on depression.
Prior to working at Boe House, Mattson practiced as a skills worker at Secure Base Counseling Center in Northfield, working with children in their homes and out in the community.
“I know how to be with a client out and about in the world, not just in an office setting, so I have that knowledge and training,” Mattson said, “but I never received formal training that talked about, say, boundaries, like okay, at St. Olaf we do not go into the community with our clients or we do not do this or that … so when I responded to the client that needed an intervention from me, my thinking was more on the level of as a formal skills worker.”
This background informed Mattson’s decision to come to campus when an actively suicidal patient of hers, with whom she had built a therapeutic relationship over the course of a year, contacted her at night in October 2019. Mattson called O’Neill, who advised her to call Public Safety. Mattson said the student became upset upon hearing of this and tried to hide.
O’Neill then advised Mattson to call the police, after which Emergency Medical Services (EMS) at NHC would take the student to the hospital for their own safety. Mattson went to the student on campus instead.
Mattson explained that the student went into hiding because they had no insurance and were financially concerned about a trip to the hospital.
“So, it was a big deal to the person, and against Steve’s advice I did go to the student and was able to help get them regulated,” Mattson said.
Costs for services are the same regardless of insurance but depend on the care needed, NHC Director of Communications Betsy Spethmann said. Their Financial Services department works with the individual on their options.
With her patient’s financial stress in mind, Mattson found the student by phone.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I was just trying to help, and in hindsight, I feel like it was a mistake,” Mattson said.
Upon arrival at the student’s location, Mattson helped the individual be present and process their feelings. She encouraged the student to focus on their senses by using an ice pack and told the student to focus on their breathing in order to calm their anxiety. Mattson also used distractions like food and finding things to laugh about.
“I do a lot of mindfulness basically to help them regulate their bodies. So once we get the heart rate and the body in line, we start working on the cognitive issues and the thoughts that are coming up,” Mattson said.
At about 11 p.m., Mattson had the student verbally promise that they would stay safe and reach out for help. “I used professional judgement and the person was definitely regulated,” Mattson said.
She told O’Neill what happened the next morning, and she then took a week off of work for personal time.
Mattson couldn’t log in to her school email account when she returned a week after the incident. She called O’Neill, who was out of town for a conference at the time. He then sent a notification to her personal email address and a letter notifying her that she was fired.
“People in higher offices than me knew about this, had conversations about this that week that I didn’t know what was coming,” Mattson said.
Mattson, who said she was seeing anywhere from 35 to 55 students, could not contact any of her patients for closure.
“I apologized to Steve for my mistake, but he would not reconsider his harsh decision,” Mattson said. Mattson called O’Neill’s decision to fire her “cold” and “draconian,” saying this could have happened to anyone. She felt that his decision to not let her contact her patients “didn’t seem like it came from even someone that knows anything about therapy, because someone that knows something about therapy would never just stop and fire and not allow closure with clients.”
O’Neill declined to comment on Mattson’s firing for reasons of personnel privacy.
Mattson wanted her students to know that she didn’t abandon them. “To all of those affected by the impersonal, bureaucratic and punitive climate that is sweeping St. Olaf College and tainting services at Boe House Counseling Center, I sincerely apologize for my abrupt departure. If given the chance, I would have helped to transition my clients to another therapist, as this is the professional and ethical thing to do. I NEVER would have walked out on my clients,” she wrote in an email to the Messenger.
The email continued, “Steve’s decision to abruptly fire me showed little regard for my clients or myself. His unwillingness to let me close my cases, shut down my email account, or prepare my colleagues for my departure proved a mistake. It was even unprofessional. It also showed Steve O’Neill’s insensitivity toward me.”
Regarding what needs to change in the environment at Boe House, Mattson said that the Center needs a better training policy and more money to hire therapists.
“When I was there, I never felt like mental health was a priority to them. It was sort of just like something they offered,” Mattson said. This failure to prioritize mental health is part of Boe House’s continuing struggle to meet the mental health needs of St. Olaf students.
Peer institutions handle similar situations in different ways. Licensed mental health counselors are on call at all times at Carleton College. Macalester College offers Protocall, a phone counselling service for urgent mental health care. Grinnell College’s SHAW Counseling Center offers a round-the-clock counseling hotline called Need to Talk? St. Olaf offers a Rice County crisis hotline through South Center Mobile Crisis Team at Horizon Homes, Inc, but no emergency mental health crisis hotline through the school.
Marit Lysne, director of student health and counseling at Carleton, said regarding the circumstances of Mattson’s story, “I can imagine a situation where a counselor could respond in such a way that despite best intentions, and depending on circumstances, behavior could cross appropriate ethical boundaries.”
Mattson said that she was only thinking about the person’s well-being at the time rather than following the advice of O’Neill. “I just wish I would have followed the director’s advice,” Mattson said, “because then I wouldn’t have lost my position. Because now I can’t help anyone at St. Olaf.”