Columns

The Undergraduate Council of Students: A call for mental health reform

By
Guest Columnist
Thursday, December 4, 2014

Brown boasts a reputation as one of the happiest colleges in the country. This perception stigmatizes students navigating mental health concerns and minimizes healthy conversation around such topics. National trends in mental health reflect this concern. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill reports that one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 has a diagnosable mental illness, that 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions do not seek help and that concern about stigma is the top reason for not doing so.

We see these issues perpetuated on campus. For example, Counseling and Psychological Services reports that 25 percent of students have previously been medicated for a mental health condition before entering campus and 40 percent have previously sought counseling. But only 17 percent of the student body utilizes its services each year, according to data provided to the Undergraduate Council of Students by CAPS Director Sherri Nelson. Clearly, there is a gap between the students who report experiencing mental health issues before coming to Brown and those who utilize the available resources on campus. This disconnect doesn’t even account for the number of students unable to access mental health care prior to college.

Even those who do utilize mental health resources find them insufficient. For example, Brown students are only allotted up to seven sessions at CAPS per year. When contacting CAPS to make an appointment, students are required to self-report the urgency of their situation to a receptionist over the phone. Students who do not report urgency in this initial call wait an average of two and a half weeks for an appointment. These inadequate services are directly correlated to the limited number of clinicians staffing CAPS, which can only be improved with additional financial support from the University.

Aside from the unacceptable wait time and the lack of an effective triage system, a host of other concerns exist surrounding mental health support services on campus. These include CAPS’ limited staff diversity, poor communication with students on medical leave policies and with those applying for readmission, issues in accessing long-term care — particularly in the referral process for external providers — and the confusing relationship between the Office of Student Life, CAPS, the Office of the Dean of the College and Student and Employee Accessibility Services.

Administrators consistently respond to student concerns about these limitations by citing the lack of available resources. We are told that there is not enough funding to improve what is already offered, but that excuse doesn’t address the issue holistically. In addition to increasing its financial commitments to CAPS, the University must engage in more proactive conversations about mental health to dispel the stigma across campus. If the University facilitates little to no conversation around mental health, then how can students be expected to deal with such experiences in the larger context of their lives at Brown?

Despite the limited nature of campus conversations surrounding mental health, students crave spaces for discussion and have taken it upon themselves to create them. For example, events sponsored by Active Minds and Students for Samaritans, in addition to the establishment of a Let’s Erase the Stigma chapter this semester, highlight the need for direct engagement with administrators on these issues. Ultimately, the University’s lack of communication surrounding this topic perpetuates further silence within the student body, which increases stigma around mental health and prevents students from accessing the limited resources available to them in the first place.

Students need to be aware of available campus resources and how to navigate them. Only through fostering this open dialogue can students be expected to feel comfortable seeking help. One clear starting point for this is during orientation, since beginning college life is one of the largest transitions many students face. But the conversation should not end there. Through panel discussions, speakers and workshops facilitated by CAPS throughout the year, the University could actively engage the entire campus in this conversation.

That being said, dialogue and communication can only be as effective as the resources that exist to back them up. It is crucial that Brown make a stronger financial commitment to bolstering mental health resources on campus. Though CAPS should be recognized for making significant improvements this semester, including the creation of a case manager position — to be filled by the end of the academic year — two of the three new hires merely replaced staff members who left. Feedback forms also still cannot be accessed online, and the office’s website lacks information explaining the clinicians’ areas of expertise.

While some changes are more long-term, others can be enacted now: An expansion of peer support groups would provide resources for a large number of students with little financial burden for CAPS, a volunteer-based student intervention team would help students navigate the variety of existing support services, and a student worker position within CAPS would develop more accessible online information. Students are pushing for many of these changes already. It’s time for the University to get creative with the resources we do have and start taking action on concrete ways to build the capacity of mental health services at Brown.

Anyone who would like to further engage with this conversation should feel free to contact Sazzy Gourley ’16, UCS vice president, and Dolma Ombadykow ’17, a Mental Health Community Council representative and a LETS founding member. They can be reached at alexander_gourley@brown.edu and dolma_ombadykow@brown.edu.

  • ’15

    Brown boasts a reputation as one of the happiest colleges in the country

    Ironically, our happiness ranking has fallen even faster than our US News ranking…
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/06/happiest-students-2015-princeton-review-vanderbilt_n_5652502.html

  • HaroldAMaio

    —The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

    That is not it name, it removed the
    caricature, “the” mentally ill years ago.

    —dispel the stigma across campus

    Let’s Erase the Stigma

    stigma around mental health

    You offend by saying there is any
    “stigma. See rape/stigma for why.

    Harold A. Maio