In the past couple of months, the Undergraduate Student Government has led a campaign to break down the stigma of mental health across multiple fronts, from an initiative to create a fall semester break to plans for exposing freshmen to mental health awareness programs during orientation. USG President Rini Sampath, one of the biggest supporters of this issue, stated that she had been motivated by the many stories of students on the “brink of some very unfortunate things.”
“College is a very difficult place,” Sampath said. “Everyone has [difficulties with] mental health, but there are people who will have mental illness. There is a wide variety and range of what people go through and I think it’s about figuring out how we can help each other out.”
Sampath pointed out how, in an effort to counter these statistics, she and USG Director of Wellness Affairs Christine Hasrouni successfully lobbied for the addition of six new counselors at the Engemann Student Health Center a few months ago.
“We brought [the issue] to President Nikias, we brought it to Student Affairs, and we said that students are unable to go see counselors because there is a seven-week wait,” Sampath said. “We should be acting proactively instead of reactively to these problems.”
Sampath mentioned that one of USG’s current actions is implementing a survey to identify students’ main health concerns.
Despite these initiatives, Sampath argued that USG’s main tool in terms of advocacy is passing resolutions, but that ultimately the administration has to implement these policies.
“It’s us laying the foundation, but it’s up to the administration if they want to construct the building,” Sampath said. “We’ve had some successes, like our drop deadline [and] Leavey Library renovations, but overall we are looking for support in other topics that might be harder to talk about, like mental health.”
Javanne Golob, a staff social worker at the counseling center, said that despite the short amount of time since USG began its initiative, some positive results are already visible.
“[USG mental health promotion] is just beginning now,” Golob said. “But I’ve had clients of mine mention that they’ve seen the events or it’s made mental health more a conversation topic on campus, so hopefully it’s starting the conversation and reducing the stigma.”
Golob said USG and other student assemblies are succeeding in popularizing the topic of mental health, making it more “campuswide” and not just something “sequestered in the corner” at the Engemann Center. Golob argued that student organizations have the advantage of going beyond the services available at the Engemann Center, and exploring mental health solutions apart from counseling. She also pointed out how USG is promoting self care habits, such as exercise, eating well, connecting socially, sleeping and seeking peer-to-peer support, which can help prevent individual crises.
“[The Engemann Center’s Interim Assistant Director of Outreach Services Dr. Kelly Greco and I] work with USG and a lot of the great student groups to formulate events for the next coming months so that people can notice the signs of a mental health issue coming up before it turns into a crisis,” Golob said. “So we’re trying. We are a little engine.”
On the programming side, this October and November USG’s Academic Culture Assembly has come to the forefront with its 2015 Mental Health Awareness Month, also known as “Behind the Mask.” Running from Oct. 12 to Nov. 20, Behind the Mask consists of 20 events, many of which are in collaboration with other student assemblies, such as the Black Student Assembly and the Women’s Student Assembly. The events are varied, taking the form of film screenings, student panels, exhibits, karaoke, yoga and even a puppy petting session.
Gisella Tan, executive director of the International Student Assembly and one of the month’s organizers, explained that de-stressing workshops are valuable in removing the “stigma” in some cultures that might have different approaches to mental health. She explained that the defunding of certain centers does not help their cause.
“I don’t think I can speak for all international students, but our resource center, the Office of International Services, has been severely defunded,” Tan said. “So if you need counseling services, you may have to wait a couple of days. And the counseling services that they offer have been greatly minimized.”
But Tan also stated that events such as the de-stressing workshop are not truly effective in generating immediate results.
“[These types of events] are more on the symbolic side,” Tan said. “I don’t think that an hour-long event or even a 20 minute yoga would actually help students successfully to de-stress.”
She added that these events are more of an opportunity to raise awareness by letting students know about the health services available and fostering self-care.
Krystal Chavez, who works in cultural affairs for the Latina/o Student Assembly, also holds awareness to be one of the main goals of Behind the Mask.
“What most people don’t realize is that programming events are essentially advocating for things. Without a goal in mind, the event won’t happen,” Chavez said. “We were advocating to the idea that the administration wasn’t doing what they needed to do in helping students.”
This advocacy has had positive results on some students. After one discussion, Eesen Sivapalan, a junior majoring in business administration and accounting who attended the event, praised USG’s efforts.
“Not just for the Latino community, but for any minority community on campus, events like these really open up discussion for topics which we wouldn’t normally discuss at home and even amongst our group of friends,” Sivapalan said. “I feel that when it comes to minority groups, things like mental health are topics that are considered taboo in the family, and so because of that, it’s not uncommon for there to be more minority members suffering from mental health issues.”
Sivapalan held that progress was definitely being made in raising awareness, and that later generations would have even easier access to the mental health conversation due to a “shrinking” cultural gap.
And due to the lack of promotion for health services, Sivapalan said that he is “happy” that USG is helping the student body in ways the administration does not.
“The University can do a better job in helping promote the mental health of students,” Sivapalan said. “We have a wait time of seven weeks for us to get an appointment with the counselor, and I feel that that just isn’t fair when we’re paying so much money for tuition.”
In fact, Sivapalan mentioned that without USG’s wellness promotion, his opinion on mental health services would have been different.
“One student pointed out that you can only get to know what’s going on in your mind when you have a facilitator guide you through your own thought process,” Sivapalan said. “The reason why I want to have an appointment with the counselors is only because of this event and the comments in the discussion here. I think events such as these are an essential part of our student experience.”
Now, USG’s biggest concern is what members characterize as an unspoken administrative indifference. Students active in combatting this issue know that their efforts pale against those the University could take.
Sampath, for example, explained that USC and USG have made huge strides in terms of mental health awareness in comparison to other campuses. However, she also said that USG at best can raise awareness, create dialogue and start conversations, but it cannot dictate policy.
“What we can do as Undergraduate Student Government is be the voice for the students and say, ‘This needs to be taken care of,’” Sampath said. “Because, otherwise, what’s going to happen? This is just going to get brushed under the rug.”