I left my job as the external director on the ASUC Mental Health Commission for many reasons. The escalating anxiety from the weight of representing thousands of students left me burned out. Paradoxically, I also quit the job to prioritize improving my own mental health, as I began to feel as though most of the work I was doing was futile.
After working in the ASUC for three years, I’ve met a lot of thoughtful people working on important projects meant to improve student mental health and our response to mental health crises. Working on projects such as adding mental health resources to syllabi and creating a wellness tab on CalCentral is noble, and I dearly hope that the students working on those projects this year succeed. But I worry that these projects may not come to fruition, given that students have been working on these projects for years with little success; the looming giant of bureaucracy can stand in the way of achieving even the smallest of goals, whether it be a link on CalCentral or a few sentences on a syllabus.
And these aren’t really solutions; they’re band-aids. Having resources in two more places isn’t going to fix the severe mental health crisis facing some UC Berkeley students. Even vital tasks, such as increasing access to counseling or adding more Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, specialists, only address the symptoms of a larger problem.
Anxiety diagnoses tripled between 2008 and 2016 at UC Berkeley. In 2014, 15% of UC Berkeley students utilized mental health services, compared to a 9.5% national average. UC Berkeley students’ utilization may indicate decreased stigma on our campus surrounding mental health services, but it could also indicate that some of us are suffering more than average students are.
As an English major, I’m lucky to have a supportive and caring department. Most of my professors have been understanding about my mental health and have assigned a manageable amount of work. My classes aren’t easy by any means, but they are doable. I know this isn’t the case for a lot of my friends in other departments, particularly in STEM. While I was on the Mental Health Commission, students from the engineering department told us stories of professors who wouldn’t provide them with their DSP accommodations and of workloads that were enormous.
It is concerning that some UC Berkeley students are drowning in their workloads and stress, and it is more concerning that it feels as though there is very little we can do about it. When I sat on the commission, we found that it was difficult to work with faculty to begin to remedy these issues.
At an already difficult institution, students shouldn’t feel the need to volunteer their time to try to remedy our attitude toward and treatment of mental health. I spent a significant portion of my time working on mental health, and I feel as though I have little to show for it. Counseling and psychological services, or CAPS, has a student advisory committee that I have sat on for three years, but it feels difficult to point to a significant, tangible impact we’ve made.
While the Tang Center’s staff cares immensely about students, the Tang Center was never very effective for me. I saw a counselor at CAPS in my freshman year who made me extremely uncomfortable. He asked invasive questions that had little to do with the issues I wanted to talk about and made assumptions about me based on my religion. When I asked another counselor if I could stop seeing him, he confronted me and told me to meet with him again to discuss why I didn’t want to see him anymore.
Despite my complaints and attempts to have my voice heard, no one at the Tang Center ever spoke to me about the issue. Every time I have used the drop-in crisis counseling services, I have had a negative experience. I have been demeaned and have even been told to just go home and take a shower when I was severely depressed. It is unclear to me how these issues are being addressed if they are addressed at all. Although these are my personal experiences and may not be the experience of every student, I wouldn’t be surprised if other students have had similar experiences.
Though I have seen less tangible change than I would have liked during my time at UC Berkeley, progress has been made. And through working with the Tang Center directly, I’ve realized how much it values the health of students. With additional funding, I imagine it could improve mental health treatment and focus more on prevention rather than responding to crises.
Right now, Tang has a committee of students that decides whether to increase student fees annually to provide the Tang Center with additional funding. Rather than having to increase the cost of attendance and having to rely on student fees, I hope that the Tang Center receives more funding from the university and state in the future.
In my four years here, I have seen some improvement. Golden Bear Orientation incorporated more mental health content into its online modules and into “Bear Pact” through student input. The Tang Center was able to open a satellite counseling center in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. The Mental Health Commission was restarted and, in its first year, created a comprehensive list of resources on- and off-campus. As I prepare to leave UC Berkeley in the spring, I’m glad to see that the campus is a little better than when I started here. But I hope that in the coming years, progress is swift, student initiatives are thoughtful and successful, and that we address the root cause of student mental health issues in addition to providing more services for struggling students.
Salwa Meghjee writes the Thursday column on destigmatizing mental illness. Contact her at [email protected].