First thoughts: campus mental health


This post is to mark the beginning of  How Are You at UC San Diego, a student mental health overhaul instigated system-wide by the UC Student Association (UCSA). Mental health for students, from elementary school on through graduate education, is in crisis on a structural level. The toll of mental illness has always been underestimated, and thus few schools have services to match need. Nationwide studies find sharp increases in college students seeking counseling.

Dr. Victor Schwartz in the linked article outlines two potential reasons that campus services are being overwhelmed. Number one, that college students as a population are having more issues than before. Number two, more people with existing issues are seeking treatment, so it’s not the density of the problem but the response rate.

I’m firmly in the camp that thinks reason two is the key issue. In my previous post on student health, “The fantasy of perfection,” I wrote about the crisis that appears when mental illness is viewed as weakness. Society waking to the reality that mental health problems, both acute and chronic, are common features of the human experience is a huge development. So while the present is a challenge on a resource level, it is at the same time an incredible opportunity.

So I’m just going to list nine things that should be considered by the How Are You campaign at the UC schools, and campus mental health campaigns in general.

The introduction of mental health resources to new freshman and transfer students. Existing orientations tend to lump all resources together- first-generation college students, sexual assault counseling, centers for racial and ethnic groups, reporting discrimination, with psychological services and disability services mixed in among them.

Identification of students who may need help. In particular, the training that RAs, graduate assistants, professors, and student leaders have, and the criteria by which they intervene.

Outreach to special groups. This can be split into vulnerable populations at risk of dropping out, and those coming from a culture where mental illness is a taboo subject. This includes having diversity in personnel, as in America counseling often defaults to white women.

Handling of acute crises. Some students need to see someone more or less now. There needs to be slack in the system to deal with an irregular number of special cases.

Handling of chronic cases. Each new person with a chronic need aren’t filling up one slot, but several each term. This leads to:

Referral. At some point, a delay for someone with chronic need becomes excessive, and off-campus help is preferable. The system needs to provide a sufficient variety of options- not only diversity of practitioners but choice easily accessible by students without a car. This includes student health insurance being accepted at most practices, and referrals being timely.

Connections with disability accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with chronic psychological conditions have special rights and can qualify for accommodations to make academics easier. However, the stigma of mental illness is distinct from the stigma of having a disability. Thus additional outreach must be made. The counseling office and disability office need to be well-connected.

Faculty education. In particular, making sure that accommodations students receive for a psychological issue are respected. Professors may resist making changes to their routine, such as letting students take a test at a different time. This needs to be restated as a civil rights issue.


Letting peers tell their own stories. Having experience with a speaker’s bureau, I can attest to the power of having people with mental health issues open up. Having the ability to educate is empowering. People dealing with mental illness should be able to self-liberate.

Onwards and upwards.


Free tuition, free minds

Over the past few weeks, myself and collaborators have been working on Students for Free Tuition, a UC San Diego organization. It was an idea born in a parking lot on a Sunday night- in the midst of looming tuition hikes, why doesn’t anyone point out the elephant in the room? Tuition is already far too high, and it’s outpacing wages and family income. American exceptionalism exists, in that for a developed country it has a remarkably unaffordable higher education system. So many countries all over the world agree that free tuition is a necessary expense for providing a public good for society at large.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.

What we have been getting is less funding from the state, run by a Democratic Party that pays lip service to funding education but lacks the teeth to pay for it. At the same time of the rising tuition, larger classes, and more crowded student housing, pricey senior administration is rising faster than the student body. The UCSD Chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, makes about $450,000 plus rent subsidy and expenses. And corners are cut at every turn- UCSD has replaced most tenured faculty hiring with adjuncts, who work a similar amount but can’t participate in research and get paid half as much.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.

Higher education is a right. Free tuition is a path to a better, smarter, healthier society.

313: Black Lives Matter and the UC system

Thursday evening had a vigil and open mic on UC San Diego campus, hosted by the Black Student Union. Moving beyond the individual cases of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, it looked at extrajudicial violence against black Americans as a whole.

Candlelit vigil for black victims of police violence, UCSD campus.  December 11, 2014.
Candlelit vigil for black victims of police violence, UCSD campus.
December 11, 2014.

313 is an estimate of how many black individuals were killed by police, security, or vigilantes in 2012. In truth, we have no idea how many blacks are killed each year who were unarmed and/or not a threat. One speaker said that her cousin died in police custody- though the official cause of death was brain aneurysm, he may have been bashed in the head with a police baton.

The open mic was beautiful, heartbreaking. Many members of the Union spoke, as well as allies (including some from the medical student action the day before) of Latino background, standing in solidarity.

A running theme is that the black community nationwide has the same struggle as black students at UCSD. Less than two percent of students on campus are black, by far the lowest of any UC campus. This stems in part from the feeling that the community does not welcome that sort of diversity, and also the feeling that the admissions office is biased against admitting black applicants.

In closing, a list of individuals (many far younger than I) were read out, killed by police in the past two years. Members of the Union broke down in sobs, clutching once another. It struck me how utterly alone they must be on campus. You could fit the entire black freshman cohort in one mid-sized conference room. They face the indifference of students who do not relate to their struggle and may have anti-black prejudice themselves. The Union is crucial because it’s what keeps the shared identity intact, despite forces that wish to tear them apart.

Racism knows no bounds- it affects university students as much as low-level drug dealers or single mothers. No matter how accomplished or agreeable someone is, they can still be stopped, searched, intimidated, and harmed by police who only see skin color.

UCSD is a microcosm- the lack of outrage on campus reflects a lack of outrage in larger society. Seeing medical students take action mattered because a normally uninterested group showed up and acknowledged their place in stopping police violence. Seeing allies show up at the vigil is the same. There is no way to stop the pain from these mass injustices than to eliminate them. Ignorance and denial are no solution, merely a way to disrespect the dead and minimize the mourning.