The Life of the Mind: Mental Health on Campus

 /  June 1, 2018, 2:18 p.m.


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While this article will present many different student experiences on campus—both here and at other universities—and suggest potential ways that the University of Chicago’s administration and student body can improve, mental health is a complex, intersectional, and sensitive topic with few simple solutions. Raising awareness to both the existing issues and possible improvements, however, is a good place to start, and will hopefully spark a broad discourse on the topic of mental health that can continue to grow and develop in the coming quarters.

Trigger warning: mental illness, stigma

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Posters advertising student counseling resources.

UChicago—“where fun goes to die”—is grappling with the mental health of its students. In this, the school is not alone. According to a 2017 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, rates of anxiety and depression have been steadily increasing on college campuses for several years. On-campus health and counseling centers have struggled to keep up with the trend, leading many students to protest about the lack of mental health resources and awareness on campus.

“University of Chicago pamphlets will tell you that Student Counseling Services is set up to give students resources to aid in their mental healthcare,” says fourth-year student Emma Preston, “and yet, every student I know who has sought resources or guidance . . . has in one way or another found these services insufficient.”

Preston’s comment reflects the opinions and experiences of many UChicago students—out of forty-four students surveyed by The Gate, 43.2 percent rated UChicago’s mental health services a 1 or a 2 out of 5 in terms of overall satisfaction. Yet, a similar amount—38.7 percent—gave SCS an overall positive rating of 4 or 5. Which begs the question: what are the causes for this disparity in student experiences, and how can SHCS make their services more effective for all students? And, perhaps more importantly, how can both students and administrators work to make UChicago a place where the “life of the mind” can truly flourish?

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Partial results from The Gate's anonymous survey on mental health on campus.

Accessibility

First things first: what mental health resources does the University offer?

In addition to student counseling, which offers short-term services for all students, SHCS provides a variety of programs: they have counseling groups that focus on specific demographics or topics, a study skills program, and a walk-in counseling program called Let’s Talk” for short-term or urgent issues. Deans-On-Call can be reached by phone at all hours to assist students in moments of crisis. On top of all of this, SHCS occasionally organizes more casual de-stress events, such as Pet Love.” With such a wide variety of resources servicing different demographics and needs, what’s the problem?

Part of the problem is the accessibility of these resources, especially for minority students on campus. According to Alisha Harris, a second-year student and member of student government, students who come from different racial or cultural backgrounds often have a harder time feeling comfortable with counselors and being understood by them. This is particularly important in the case of mental health providers because of the varying cultural approaches to mental illness. In the black community, Harris says, mental illness is extremely stigmatized, oftentimes seen as a person “having demons,” or even “as a white person’s problem.” Second year Vicky Xie describes similar dynamics in Asian-American communities, where individuals experiencing mental illness tend not to speak up about it for fear of “rocking the boat.” Having counselors who understand the ways in which specific identities can affect the way one experiences mental illness, they explain, is crucial to destigmatizing mental health and ultimately making services more effective for all communities.

“I [am] most comfortable speaking with someone who can relate, even on a more personal level, to who I am, so I don’t have to qualify why I’m feeling a certain way about certain issues,” Alisha explained. “It’s easier to talk about women’s issues to another woman. It’s also easier to talk about issues of race with somebody who’s of the same race as you.”

Monica Unzueta, a second year at Washington University in St. Louis, expressed similar concerns about her school’s counseling services, noting that there were certain counselors who were seen as better at serving students of certain identities, and others who were known for making certain populations feel uncomfortable, such as LGBTQ students. Both Monica and Alisha offered a similar solution – the counseling centers should hire more staff representing different identities. Indeed, the University of Chicago’s student counselors are overwhelmingly white, with just one African-American woman on staff as a full-time counselor. Washington University in St. Louis has similar levels of representation. Both Monica and Alisha reported feeling uncomfortable with certain counselors who didn’t seem to be well-trained regarding their particular identities.

“I think hiring more counselors would be such an easy thing to do,” Monica said. “There’s not a finite [number] of counselors who can talk to LGBT students. I just really think that that should be a higher priority for the administration.”

Despite the relatively low statistics for representation among the staff, UChicago’s Student Health and Counseling Services seeks to maintain a commitment to diversity in a variety of other ways. For example, SCS has a ten-member diversity committee that “meets quarterly to formally discuss issues of culture, oppression, and their relationship to the student experience at the University of Chicago,” according to the description on their website. The goal of the committee is to increase staff’s capability to help students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. One way that the committee does this is by planning one diversity training per quarter, which invites an outside presenter to talk to staff members about ways in which SCS can improve their services for minority students. On top of this, SCS hosts two lunches each quarter where staff members can volunteer to lead a discussion or exercise related to diversity.

Marielle Sainvilus, the University’s Director of Public Affairs, described a few such activities to The Gate: “For example, one staff member facilitated an activity on the experience of coming out. Another clinical staff member guided the staff in a discussion on multiracial identity, using her own experiences as an anchor for the discussion.”

But students’ complaints about staffing are not limited to issues of diversity—understaffing, along with unclear or difficult-to-navigate infrastructure, contributes to accessibility issues for both minorities and non-minorities. Many struggle with the long waiting times involved in scheduling an appointment. Although SHCS’ website states that getting an appointment usually does not take longer than five days, according to The Maroon, it can take weeks before a student is actually able to sit down with a counselor and talk about what is bothering them. Almost half of the forty-four students who reached out to The Gate explicitly mentioned understaffing or waiting times as an important area for improvement.

In addition to long waiting times, the process of scheduling itself can be an uphill battle for some students. Many students pointed out that being required to either call or walk into the SCS office can be a daunting task for students already struggling with depression or anxiety—precisely the community that SHCS is meant to serve.

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Student Counseling Service, at 5555 S Woodlawn Avenue.

“I think that often when a student is already feeling overwhelmed and at a point where they want to seek help, having to call someone to make an appointment feels like a greater challenge that requires more energy,” says fourth year Zilin Cui, the current president of UChicago’s Active Minds chapter. “Because there are already so many other facts that dissuade students from seeking help, like stigma or not thinking their problems are serious enough, making this process as easy as possible is important.”  

Leslie Schmuldt, a third year who utilized Student Counseling Services, adds: “I think the fact that you have to call them to make an appointment, even though it’s a small thing . . . when you’re already at the point where you need counseling, it can be really hard to get up the courage to make a phone call. I would love if they had an online form or something like that.”

Once Leslie was able to work up the courage to call with another friend who was also struggling in the spring of her first year, she found Student Counseling Services to be effective in helping her cope with stress and doubt. “I really liked my counselor,” she recalled, “I think it was really hard just because it’s hard to get counseling.” This type of experience is not unique to Leslie—many students reported great experiences with individual therapists and services once they had gotten in the door. Experiences like this highlight the importance of accessibility for mental health resources on campus—if adding an online appointment sign-up portal would get students like Leslie in for counseling sooner, it seems like a relatively simple way to make Student Counseling more welcoming and accessible, and ultimately more successful in fulfilling its goals.

In this respect, UChicago stands apart from peer institutions like Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis, both of which allow students to schedule appointments through a secure online portal similar to my.UChicago or my Chart (though WashU’s system notably only allows online scheduling for intake appointments, and not for follow-ups, according to second-year Monica Unzueta). This is partly due to financial roadblocks. According to a student who serves on the Student Health Advisory Board, the online portal idea has been proposed for years, but the cost of such a large infrastructure change has made it difficult for SCS to implement.

It is partially in protest against perceived underfunding and understaffing that groups like UChicago United have demanded the University increase investment in Student Health and Counseling. But, as in the case of a more diverse staff, funding cannot be expected to drastically increase overnight.

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So what can SHCS and the student body do right now to make services more accessible to all students? This brings us to the last prominent obstacle to accessibility at UChicago and peer institutions: lack of awareness about the mental health resources offered. SHCS has significantly more than just student counseling—from counseling groups to study groups to events addressing specific issues such as sexual consent or imposter syndrome. However, it often takes a long time for students to find the programs that end up proving effective for them.

Anna*, a third-year Philosophy major in the College, has had extensive experience with SHCS—she received counseling and psychiatric help from SCS before being referred off-campus for long-term counseling, and she has participated in both longer-term counseling groups on-campus and the ASAP study skills program. Her experience with SHCS has been generally negative, which she believes is due in part to lack of transparency about University services and policies, especially in regards to her experience in counseling and psychiatry. The other programs, however, have proven more positive for her.

“I think if you go in knowing what you want out of them, that’s probably the best way to use them,” she explains. “Particularly for the study skills one, if you go in saying like, this is where I really think I have a problem—maybe it’s motivation, maybe it’s lack of focus. You sort of isolate what [you think] you need to improve. Then I think they can make good recommendations for what you should do.”

For students who do know what they need help with, programs such as counseling groups or ASAP can be quick and effective, and save students the time and energy of going through the process of getting individual counseling meetings. However, many students don’t even know about the more focused services until they go to Student Counseling. This was the case for Anna.

“Most of these programs [such as ASAP] I found out about while sitting in the waiting room, waiting for my provider,” Anna recalls. “So I think if you’re already at SCS a lot, you probably know about their programs, but it’s hard to find out about them if not.”

Student Health and Counseling promotes their programs through a variety of means—they hang flyers around campus, post on the Wellness Facebook page, email students in the College about the study skills program, and disseminate information through a variety of student liaisons on campus, such as the Student Health Advisory Board members, Peer Health Student Liaisons, and Wellczars. Housing communities also have the potential to raise awareness about mental health. Consider Graham House, which holds an annual mental health awareness week during winter quarter. This year, first year Amber Keahey, the current public relations manager of Active Minds, was invited by her house to give a presentation on mental health as a part of the weekly program. In addition, Graham’s Wellczars organized various events, including a movie screening related to mental health and de-stressing activities.

“I know I personally really appreciated the house's effort to visibly consider and help the residents' mental health, if at the very least to let residents know that resources exist for mental health and that it is something that they should take care of,” Amber reflected upon the week. “Showing sensitivity to these issues [by] having weeks of mental health awareness such as Graham does and having open, candid conversations between staff and residents on how mental health interacts with the house system are some things that I believe would help everyone feel more secure and informed.”

Atmosphere

Not all of the obstacles to mental health care on campus are infrastructural—the general atmosphere among the student body plays an equally crucial role, especially in the stigma it creates around mental illness.

“The culture at UChicago can be really damaging and toxic in terms of mental health,” says fourth year Camille Choe. “It’s super high-pace and high-pressure, and if you have a mental health crisis or experience some kind of trauma, it’s so easy to fall behind and get overwhelmed. On top of that, people here have a really unhealthy attitude to mental well-being and normalize being really stressed and overwhelmed. That shouldn’t be how people are feeling all the time,”

Between students competing over how little sleep they got or joking about the copious amounts of caffeine they have consumed, Camille points out, the emphasis is usually on “suffering through” the stress as opposed to reaching out for help, since that’s what everyone else seems to be doing. Fourth year Zilin Cui, the current president of UChicago’s Active Minds chapter, also noted the stigmatization of mental health on campus, listing stigmatization as one of the primary barriers to students accessing mental health resources.

Stigmatization is just as much of a problem at other schools, a fact that both Monica Unzueta of Washington University in St. Louis and Becina Ganther of Harvard University attested to.

“[Stigma is] such a pervasive thing,” Becina says. “And it’s so tied into so many other things, like there are different communities in which mental health is more stigmatized than others, and some people growing up maybe never had access to mental health resources for financial reasons, or they didn’t have insurance, things like that.”

But students are working to fight that. At Harvard, Becina explains, one of the best ways to reduce stigma is to simply talk openly about it. “A high number of students do go [to CAMHS (Harvard’s SHCS)], but they don’t talk about it,” she says. By increasing conversations about on-campus counseling centers, especially for those who might feel hesitant about accessing mental health resources due to some sort of stigmatization, more students can become aware of the options that exist for them, both within student counseling and in other groups or programs on campus.

Here at UChicago the Taiwanese-American Student Association (TASA), Pan-Asia, and UChicago’s Active Minds chapter recently came together to hold “Break the Silence,” a three-day-long conference on mental health issues in Asian-American communities that took place in April. Conference organizers hoped to explore the intersections between mental health and culture/identity and, more specifically, to “break the silence” surrounding such issues in Asian-American communities.

The unlikely organizing team of RSOs initially came together through the OMSA Coalition. The Coalition is a program out of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs which, according to their website, aims to “develop more collaborative and long-lasting relationships with all student groups . . . whose mission, philosophy, and group membership is reflected in the offices encompassed in the Center for Identity + Inclusion.”

“[The OMSA Coalition] extended an invitation to leadership from different minority groups throughout the school to get together twice a quarter at the CI+I building to discuss different issues, [such as] the troubles we as leaders of these groups faced, how different groups can come together to support each other and collaborate on certain events, etc.,” explained Vicky Xie, a second-year student and the current President of TASA. “While collaborations are still few and far between because RSOs tend to place their own events as priority—very understandable—it did spark a fire to start thinking about different ways our organizations could come together with others on joint projects. The OMSA coalition was actually what brought TASA and PanAsia leaders together, as being present at this optional event also sent a signal that our organizations cared about such joint collaborations.”

Such collaborations, the organizers suggest, could be a potential means by which students can start broader conversations on campus about mental health. Zilin Cui of Active Minds, an organization whose main goal is to increase students’ awareness of mental health resources and empower them to reach out for help when needed, sees such collaborations as a way to extend conversations about mental health into all corners of campus.

“For us, because we are a relatively small and not very well-known organization, it is hard for us to reach a wider population on campus . . . partnering with other organizations allows us to reach people we would not have otherwise reached.” Supporting and coordinating such partnerships is one way that Student Health and Counseling could be both more involved on campus and hopefully increase the accessibility of mental health resources for students of all backgrounds.

Another initiative, called “A Stress Free Zone,” also strives to create a stigma-free zone on campus where students can learn more about mental health offerings at UChicago, discuss any struggles they have faced, and acquire practical skills to deal with stress or anxiety. “A Stress Free Zone” happens on a quarterly basis, and was designed and implemented by six students in the Student Leadership Institute: Soulet Ali, Shelby Singer, Mary Kilonzo, Philip Liu, Panos Voulgaris, and Sunny Liu.

“The impetus for the event was to increase student awareness of the available campus mental health resources and allow students to learn from professionals in the workforce and graduate school, some of whom are former University of Chicago students,” explains second year Soulet Ali, one of the student organizers. “This event was made to offer students a welcoming space to talk about their stresses and be taught how to deal with it without making an appointment to counseling services (which could take weeks) or confronting any stigma.”

At WashU, one organized student group stands out: the Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center, which is an entirely student-led peer counseling program that allows students to talk to a trained peer counselor on a one-session-per-issue basis. For example, imagine you’re having difficulties with your roommates, or you have been feeling extremely stressed academically, or you think you might have seasonal depression. For any of these issues, WashU students can either walk into the Joes’ office any night between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., or call into the 24/7 phone hotline, and they will be connected to speak confidentially with one of the volunteers, who are trained to listen and to direct students towards potentially helpful resources. According to second-year Monica Unzueta, the Joes have a very positive reputation on campus, though their services are limited.

“In my personal experience, if someone tells me that they're a Joe, I think that they're probably a good person,” Monica says. “It's like a stamp of approval, because I think their selection [and training] process is really good.”

After going through more than one hundred hours of training, the website explains, all counselors are trained to handle a wide variety of topics and to refer students to resources both on- and off-campus. As a peer counseling organization, Uncle Joe’s is especially effective at improving general student attitudes towards mental health. Monica described the atmosphere as a culture of trust.

“I think there's a lot of trust within the student body that if you go to a Joe, they're going to know how to talk to you. The general attitude towards them is definitely trust, [which is] very positive . . . I think there's a general recognition that they bring something really valuable to campus.”

Another benefit of peer counseling programs is their ability to target specific, underserved student populations that might be marginalized in the University’s current system. At Harvard, there are a variety of peer counseling programs—one for LGBTQ individuals, one for black students, one for victims of sexual assault, and one called Room 13, which is similar to Uncle Joe’s in that it addresses more general concerns. Becina, who serves as a peer counselor with CONTACT, the LGBTQ counseling group, reports generally positive feedback from students, though she recognizes the services are limited. Along these lines, Harvard second year Laura Veira-Ramírez notes, “I think peer counseling groups developed because the health services were slacking. It’s like a bandaid on the problem . . . the groups do work hard, but it really is put on students who many times have their own mental health struggles to try to close this gap.”

UChicago’s peer counseling group, Lean On Me, works a bit differently than its Harvard and WashU counterparts, and is modeled off of a program by the same name at MIT. Instead of having students walk or call in, Lean On Me works on a text platform, primarily for maximum accessibility and anonymity. As is the case with all peer counseling services, Lean On Me is not meant to replace the services provided by SHCS—instead, it is meant to be a complement to those services.

As a relatively new name on campus—UChicago’s Lean On Me chapter was founded only two years ago by students Ariella Katz and Sophia Sheng‚—Lean On Me doesn’t have the kind of widespread reputation on campus that Uncle Joe’s seems to have at WashU. When asked about positive trends on campus and areas for improvement, student Leslie Schmuldt noted: “I think there have been general movements like the Lean On Me movement, and I think those are great, but they’re not getting as much attention as I thought they would have.” In other words, as is the case with almost all mental health resources on-campus, Lean On Me faces the challenge of low student awareness of their offerings. Student feedback to the program has been “overwhelmingly positive” according to Liam Rossman, one of the leaders of the UChicago branch—now, it’s just a question of increasing name-recognition and getting more students involved.

***

Last week, students crowded into the limited seating of Hallowed Grounds Café on a Thursday evening, buzzing with anticipation as instruments and microphones were being set up at the back of the room. While waiting for the show to start, some looked through Lean On Me flyers that were on the table at the front, while others analyzed posters that gave basic statistics about mental health on college campuses. Finally, the Caged Eggs, a student band, kicked off the night, followed by a variety of musicians, ranging from Average Johnson’s rap “There Ain’t No Space in Mansueto” to the experimental group Botany Pond. In between songs, representatives from Lean On Me talked about their organization and handed out the phone number for their texting service. Then, after a brief pizza break, students also enjoyed an open mic, where students were offered to share poems, songs, stories or other works with a non-judgmental audience.

This event, which was called “Be Kind To Your Mind: A Concert and Open-Mic,” is yet another example of the various ways that RSO collaborations can create mental-health-friendly spaces on campus and open the doors to increased amounts of conversation surrounding mental health.

As Harvard student Laura Veira-Ramírez noted, peer counseling and other student groups attempting to create non-judgmental, positive spaces on campus cannot be considered a substitute for professional mental health resources, and their effectiveness—especially for those suffering from severe mental illness—is limited. However, they can help to combat negative stigmatization of mental illness, and encourage students to reach out for help. Directly after the concert and open mic, Lean On Me saw increased use of their text services and received positive feedback on the event. Liam Rossman, one of the leaders of the organization, was encouraged by this response, and hopes to see similar initiatives and events in the future so that Lean On Me can become more integrated with general campus life.

“You can absolutely [see] this as us reaching a new audience of sorts—maybe also as a sign that mental health doesn’t have to exist in its own space, that conversations about well-being can be meaningfully integrated into other communities,” Liam said.

Looking ahead, there are several initiatives on the horizon that will aim to address the student concerns about mental health. Active Minds, one of the organizations behind “Break the Silence,” is partnering with Fire Escape Films to create a movie highlighting various student experiences with SHCS, with an emphasis on the wide range of perspectives that students have. Ultimately, the goal of the project is to decrease stigma and to “empower” students to make informed decisions about their mental health at UChicago. Student Health is also spearheading initiatives of their own, such as the “Mental Health First Aid” program, which provides eight-hour-long trainings for students to learn how to help others through mental health crises. The program, which was launched at UChicago in 2015, has been rapidly expanding due to popular demand and overwhelmingly positive participant feedback—according to an SHCS spokesperson, individuals who have taken the course report feeling more confident in addressing mental health crises, and one hundred percent of students who have completed the course would recommend MHFA to their peers.

The presence of such efforts is encouraging, and indicates a growing desire for change on campus, but much remains to be done. Tomorrow (Friday, June 1st), students from UChicago United and UChicago Student Action will be holding a demonstration called “Care Not Cops” at the Alumni House to call for more financial investment in student health and counseling services, as opposed to the University Police. In the light of the recent shooting of fourth-year student Charles Thomas by the UCPD while in the midst of a mental health crisis, students have been demanding both police reform and additional investment in SHCS to prevent such crises from happening again, as well as to increase the overall effectiveness of SHCS’ offerings. “With the amount of resources the University of Chicago possesses . . . there is absolutely no excuse for its current system of health care,” says Preston, who participated in UChicago United’s protest on April 6 against UCPD violence. “Our mental health facilities should be better staffed. They should offer long-term therapy, not just intake appointments and a handful of follow-ups. Psychiatrists should not be pressed for time during check-ups . . . All of us deserve better.”

But throughout the fight for increasing funding and implementing reforms in our mental health resources on campus, organizers like Zilin Cui believe students should not forget the importance of creating an encouraging and welcoming environment around mental health, not only a critical one. “The hard part is keeping ourselves from being one-sided: we must support our friends who have gone through traumatic experiences with SCS while somehow not completely demonizing SCS so much that students no longer see it as an option, especially for those who may be dealing with different problems and who might potentially find more success at SCS,” she says. She, along with her UChicago classmates and college students nationwide, is still struggling to find that balance.

All photos are courtesy of the author. 

*Several names have been changed, to protect the privacy of some of the students who agreed to speak with us.

In response to our article, the University of Chicago issued the following response:

SCS is dedicated, through its hiring practices and through its emphasis on fostering multicultural competency among staff, to ensuring that SCS is a place where all students feel welcome and understood.  The SCS staff, like the students SCS serves, consists of individuals from diverse backgrounds.  These staff include counselors with expertise in LGBTQ mental health, and in working with international students.  SCS clinicians are able to provide services in Spanish, Mandarin, French, Japanese, and Russian.  SCS staff serve as SCS Liaisons to (among other units): Multicultural Student Affairs; LGBTQ Student Life; and the Office of International Affairs.  SCS has an active Diversity Committee, which plans and implements both formal in-service diversity training as well as less formal diversity-focused brown bag lunches.  In 2017 SCS Staff Psychologist Adia Gooden, PhD, assumed the new role of Coordinator of Multicultural Outreach and Services, and she has been active in overseeing SCS programming in this area.

On staffing, the level of staffing at SCS is comparable to that at other private universities, and well above the national average for all universities the size of UChicago. In order to understand how staffing at SCS compares to that of other university counseling centers, it is useful to compare the ratio of students to providers.  In 2017 the student-provider ratio for SCS at UChicago was 698:1. The national average in 2016 for all universities the size of UChicago was 1,807 :1 (according to the 2016 Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors’ Annual Survey). 


Alexandra C. Price

Alexandra Price is a second year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major and prospective German minor particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As this year's recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent the summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not reading for class or writing for the Gate, Alexandra participates in Model United Nations, is a member of the Women in Public Service Project, and enjoys long bike rides around the city.


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