What UC Berkeley can do to improve the mental health of students

College students are part of a growing and serious epidemic of mental health problems. Rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among students are already high and are only increasing. Results from the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, or ACHA-NCHA, show that three in five college students report experiencing overwhelming anxiety, and two in five college students report symptoms of depression — rates significantly larger than those found just 10 years in the past. 

Most discussions of what universities can do to improve students’ mental health focus on direct mental health services, such as UC Berkeley’s Tang Center. That discussion is, of course, very important, since therapy and mental health accommodations can have major positive impacts on a student’s well-being. This focuses, however, on treating the issue without alleviating the root causes of poor mental health in student populations. 

Many studies have found that high stress levels exacerbate mental health issues. Chronic stress, meaning the long-term and persistent existence of stress, has been consistently linked to worsened mental health. Analysis of the ACHA-NCHA’s results found that stress is strongly correlated with suicidal thoughts and mental health diagnoses among college students. These results make intuitive sense: We all know that stress makes it harder to sleep, focus and function from day to day. But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t just an issue of students having a lot on their plates — high stress levels represent a real danger to students’ long-term health. 

The University Health Services website details stress management techniques, but if the UC system genuinely wants to improve students’ mental health, it shouldn’t place the entire burden of managing stress on the shoulders of the students themselves. Students’ stress comes from many areas — some of which UC Berkeley has no influence over. But two of the most significant stressors for students are directly impacted by UC system policies: money and school. In addition to the mental health services offered by UC Berkeley, reforming the financial aid and education systems could alleviate some of the extreme stress exacerbating mental health issues for students. 

Students at UC Berkeley face the grim reality of rising costs of both tuition and living. Tuition for students in the UC system has grown by 78% over just the past 10 years, and many students walk away with heavy student loan debt. Fortunately, UC Berkeley does have a robust financial aid system that helps many students from lower-income families. But the cost of college isn’t just tuition, and the fact that 39% of UC Berkeley undergraduates experience food insecurity clearly demonstrates the massive stress posed by paying for college. 

Without major changes in state and federal policy, it would be almost impossible for the UC system  to fully remove the stress of paying for college. Improving the system by which students access financial aid to make it easier to navigate would alleviate some of that stress. UC Berkeley’s financial aid system can feel dauntingly complex, and many incoming students lack support in figuring out how to benefit from the system. The stress of whether or not we will be able to access the financial aid we need is a real problem when facing UC Berkeley’s sprawling bureaucracy. “I got told I was on some sort of probation when I met all the criteria for being in the clear,” said Faateh Mukhtar, a campus sophomore. He had to go through an exhausting appeals process before the issue was finally resolved and was afraid his financial aid would be revoked because of the error. “The way I was treated felt very ‘guilty until proven innocent,’ ” Mukhtar said.

Additionally, there are many caveats that can result in financial aid being revoked. Registration holds, having too few units and failing to maintain “satisfactory academic progress” can all lead to students losing the help they need. These threats can also be a major source of stress. 

Many students could not get by without the aid offered by UC Berkeley. With stakes that high, students shouldn’t have to worry that minor errors on their part or that of UC Berkeley could result in the removal of that necessary aid. Ideally, the rules of the financial aid system would involve greater leniency and a more intuitive counseling system, so students are helped rather than punished when they run into difficulty.

Another significant way UC Berkeley could help alleviate high student stress levels, however, is by restructuring the standards by which courses are taught. The current system involves a huge amount of unnecessary stress, made worse by the aforementioned fact that “unsatisfactory” academic performance can lead to massive financial difficulties. The point of classes should be learning, but many campus policies seem to favor those who already have knowledge over those with an earnest desire to gain knowledge. 

Many UC Berkeley professors pride themselves on their classes being difficult, as if having students struggle is a sign of success. The ACHA-NCHA shows that only about 10-15% of college students receive counseling for their mental health issues. These untreated problems can impact academic performance, causing a negative feedback loop of greater stress, leading to even worse mental health. Specifically, mental health issues can lead to students missing class and having difficulty turning in assignments on time. In many classes, even a few absences can significantly damage final grades. Strict late policies mean that when students turn in assignments late, their grades suffer. Few classes offer opportunities for significant extra credit or making up missed assignments and tests, meaning that even a few weeks of poor mental health can permanently damage grades. Standardizing academic policies that allow students to work hard and make up for missed work could alleviate this source of stress. 

It’s important to have counseling and mental health services widely available on campus, and students should take greater advantage of these sources of help. But changing the anxiety-inducing aspects of UC Berkeley’s financial aid system and class policies could also be a major way to help students plagued by poor mental health and extreme stress. 

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected].