In 2016, approximately 16 percent of UC Berkeley students used campus counseling centers — 4 percent higher than the national average of 12.
This raises the question: Is the campus’s mental health worse than the rest of the nation? According Tang Center spokesperson Kim LaPean, the answer is no.
“The fact that more students utilize our services here does not mean that our students are more anxious here,” LaPean said. “Everyone wants to know why, and we don’t have the perfect answer. We don’t really know why students seek out more help.”
LaPean offered several potential explanations as to why the percentage of students seeking out support is higher on campus, including Counseling and Psychological Services’ effort to promote and discuss mental health resources on campus.
LaPean said UC Berkeley is not too different from campuses around the state and nation, citing a 20 percent increase overall in utilization of counseling services across all 10 UC campuses between academic years 2014-15 and 2016-17.
Alexandra Ginsberg, legislative and federal affairs officer for the American Psychological Association, researches campus mental and behavioral health. Ginsberg said various social, biological and environmental factors contribute to the prevalence of poor mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, on college campuses.
According to Ginsberg, college serves as a transition period for students, many of whom are facing independence for the first time — this transition contributes to students’ stress levels and coincides with the age of onset for many chronic mental health conditions.
“Research says that at the age of 25, 75 percent of those who will have a mental health disorder have already experienced that onset,” Ginsberg said. “Most mental health disorders have their peak onset during young adulthood.”
Ginsberg and LaPean both pointed to a new trend that may explain an increase in students seeking out mental health support — they both said newly admitted students are arriving on campuses with their mental health conditions already identified.
Fifty years ago, Ginsberg said, the understanding of mental health did not allow for early childhood diagnoses. Thus, many students with mental health conditions were unlikely to have had enough support or encouragement to enroll in college.
“More students that are already coming to college with pre-existing conditions that have been identified, such as anxiety and depression,” Ginsberg said.
After her experience with depression in high school, sophomore Didi Wu arrived on campus knowing she wanted to work with mental health on campus, so she became a peer counselor for Student-to-Student Peer Counseling to use her experiences to help other students.
Wu said that on campus, it seems to be more acceptable to talk about academic stress than to explicitly mention mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
“The type of stress you see on the meme page — that’s the acceptable kind of stress: how worried someone is about their classes or how badly they’re doing in a class.” Wu said. “It’s not like somebody has to say that they’re going through something stronger or deeper. But it prevents dialogues.”
From her experience as a peer counselor, Wu said it is common for students to feel lost on UC Berkeley’s campus, because finding a support system can be difficult for many new students. She said she was lucky because she was able to connect with her counselor at the Tang Center, which provided her with a lot of support.
LaPean and Ginsberg said academic stress is unavoidable at a rigorous university such as UC Berkeley — LaPean stressed, however, that what is notable is how students adapt and react to that stress.
The Tang Center is trying to educate students not only on the presence of anxiety, LaPean said, but also about the consequences of anxiety on one’s life. If someone is ignoring friends and family or spending hours on the internet, LaPean said it’s important to recognize these behaviors and take action to improve that individual’s mental health.
“One of the things we’re trying to get students to do is to recognize (anxiety) before it snowballs,” LaPean said. “It’s just about recognizing when you have consequences and trying to do something … without perpetuating that stress.”
LaPean said she is encouraged by the number of students who reach out to the Tang Center when they recognize signs of anxiety or depression within their close friends. This gives the campus hope that therapy and mental health support are more destigmatized on campus, according to LaPean. Ginsberg added that as someone “not far removed from college age” herself, she knows that mental health issues resonate well for most students.
“If you, yourself, as a student didn’t experience a mental health problem, you know somebody else who did,” Ginsberg said. “So if you have a friend that you might be worried about, encourage them to seek help. … What do you have to lose?”