Experts, student advocates reflect on mental health in 2020

Illustration of a person looking stressed as they consider the events of the year 2020
Yoonseo Lee/Staff

Within the catastrophe that is 2020, there seems little room for much else than collective dread. A pandemic, a social reckoning with systemic racism, one of the most contested elections in recent memory and much more — all within one year. I’m sure you didn’t need the reminder, and at this point, a skeletal recap of 2020’s events is certainly not original journalism.

However, frequently lost within the roller coaster that is 2020 is our mental well-being — our sense of personal happiness in relation to several global threats. As macro-level threats challenge the safety of humanity, it seems almost wrong to dwell on ourselves and the paper we have due next week. Is it selfish to worry about our mental health when others cannot breathe?

While mental health issues are frequently stigmatized as a symptom of weakness rather than genuine illness, leading professionals and student advocates assert that the emotional toll of 2020 has posed a legitimate threat to our well-being.

Dacher Keltner, a campus psychology professor and the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, argues that compromising our mental health jeopardizes the fate of humanity.

“Our mind is the most precious organism in the world, outside of our world’s ecosystems.” he said in an email. “Its health will determine how well we fare as a species. There are many threats to mental health right now — inequality, COVID, racism, poverty. So we need to devote full force to caring for our mental health.”

Students are not exempt from Keltner’s call to protect ourselves. Unsurprisingly, rates of mental illness within the student population have spiked. According to a study coled by the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, about a third of the students surveyed screened positive for major depressive disorder, while 39% screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder.

Frank Worrell, director of UC Berkeley’s school psychology program, dissects the unique difficulties that drive dramatic increases in mental illness, with a special focus on the political experiences of students. According to Worrell, the nation’s divisive decision-making has created a “psychological pandemic” that, for some, rivals the severity of COVID-19. Worrell said that on subjects such as the recent election, systemic racism and white supremacy, diverging opinions have resulted in amplified stress levels and, in some cases, the loss of friends, family and even community.

With the dissemination of most social support, obstacles in accessing essential technology, thwarted expectations of college life and existential health threats posed by the pandemic, increasing rates of depression and anxiety seem inevitable. The totality of these challenges can only be described by Worrell as a “perfect storm in multiple venues — health, sociopsychological well-being, the political realm.”

Considering the cataclysmic effects of 2020, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of threats to almost every facet of our existence. However, the efficacy of several student organizations has demonstrated the ways in which students can regain control and seek out treatment, even through a simple text.

In response to the pandemic, students passionate about mental health have used the opportunity to help their peers.

“Your mental health is who you are,” said campus sophomore Joshua Tran. “To take care of ourselves is the first step in trying to take care of others.”

Tran is the recruitment coordinator for Lean On Me, UC Berkeley’s first anonymous noncrisis text hotline for students. The new student organization was partially inspired by the isolation of the pandemic to increase peer-to-peer connectivity. With a cohort of about 15 supporters, who have all undergone about 20 hours of extensive training, Lean on Me aims to simply “listen to our students and help them figure out what they need,” according to Tran. Lean On Me can also be accessible across international borders and without a computer or even consistent Wi-Fi.

Alongside the encouraging advances of student-driven mental health resources, Worrell predicts that the ongoing effects of 2020 bolster the importance of the field of psychology. In the past year, the American Psychological Association created an official task force assigned to address racism through psychology, and for the first time, several states relaxed laws that dissuaded trained psychologists from practicing virtually. Worrell hopes that virtual resources will continue to be available for students post-pandemic, as accessibility to mental health services increases.

The intersection of a pandemic and several political crises have contributed to meteoric rises in anxiety and depression, especially among students. Yet, despite the hurdles 2020 has posed, progress has refused to be stymied. Students and professionals alike have created innovative solutions in the face of an unrivaled existential threat.

Contact Aiko Sudijono at [email protected].