For Truly Effective Mental Healthcare, Listen to Students

Despite a shiny new wellness center, administrators’ approach toward mental health ignores student voices.

By Maroon Editorial Board

Here is a non-exhaustive list of student groups that have organized in the last year to address mental health on this campus: Student Government’s Community, Amplify, Represent, Empower (CARE) slate, Phoenix Survivors Alliance, Lean On Me, the Campus Policy Research Institute (CPRI), UChicago Student Action, UChicago United, and the Emergency Fund. As the efforts of these student groups show, UChicago is certainly not lacking in advocacy or student action around mental health.

Myriad student demands related to mental health include cultural competency training for therapists, greater availability of counselors, shorter wait times for student counseling services, extended office hours, and changes in the referral process for outside providers. Viewpoints columnists and guest writers have lent thousands of words to this subject in The Maroon: Hannah Edgar’s “UChicago Needs to Fully Commit to Part-Time Status,” Livia Miller’s “Without Mental Health Resources, There Is No Life of the Mind,” and Jay Gibbs’s “Student Counseling Services: For a Limited Time Only” are only a few examples.

This conversation, however, has been largely one-sided. Students write about, organize around, and conduct independent research into the state of mental health on campus, and get mostly silence from higher-ups in University administration in response.

This is not to say that UChicago takes no action on student mental health. Tangible steps include a new 24-hour phone line that connects students with a mental health clinician, two new case managers, and the new Wellness Center.

Indeed, all of these initiatives promise to improve mental health services available on campus. But regardless of current progress, the University’s approach toward student mental health has often been untransparent, alienating students on campus. In the case of the new wellness center, for example, the University has yet to provide substantive details on how many new staff members will be hired concurrent with its opening, and it does not currently plan to expand appointment hours as students have repeatedly asked.

Students are in the best position to voice their own mental health needs and identify holes in the University’s current services. Our University should be proud that its student body is advocating for itself, and that students are building infrastructure to support one another, like the student-run Emergency Fund and UChicago’s Lean On Me network. But instead of using student voices to inform their decisions, the administration devises its own solutions, often failing to address the needs of students.

When undergraduates asked for shorter counseling wait times and a larger, better-trained counseling staff, the school offered to bring in therapy dogs for an afternoon—and then, before the dogs’ visit last quarter, announced their death in a later-deleted Facebook post. And far from taking structural steps to reduce academic stress, the University recently debuted new standards for Latin honors, Dean’s List, and other academic awards—likely to promote competition on campus—without so much as offering an announcement that the change had happened to the student body.

In other cases, the administration’s approach toward mental health seems to neglect student voices entirely. Late last month, the Bursar’s Office launched a new website dedicated to the University’s own Emergency Assistance Programs. The website provides information that was previously not widely disclosed to students and puts forth a mission and structure that is unmistakably similar to UChicago’s existing student-run Emergency Fund, without crediting its student creators. What’s more, in the 2018 publicizing of an official University emergency fund, the University did not consult the student activists who had worked for years to establish this resource in a vacuum of administrative support.

As Jahne Brown, Student Government president and a founder of the original fund, writes in a recent Viewpoints piece, the problem is not just that the student organizers of the Emergency Fund were robbed of credit for their work, although that is shameful. The bigger problem is that in failing to consult them, the University missed an opportunity to meaningfully solicit input from students, despite the fact that students had already successfully developed their own emergency fund.

As a result of this failure to engage with students, the University-designed fund has several shortcomings that the students behind the Emergency Fund had already encountered and addressed. The University fund limits how many times a student can apply during their time here, for example, and it does not cover academic supplies or materials. A process that incorporated student input could have identified these problems before the University’s fund launched; instead, a flawed design process produced a flawed product.

This is not merely a political struggle between the student body and administration. In implementing new infrastructure to support mental health on campus, it is vital that the University seriously consider student voices; otherwise, they risk missing the root causes of students’ concerns.

On February 20, Student Government will host a mental health town hall for the campus community, with cooperation from the Student Counseling Service. This event is the first town hall with top mental health administrators; it’s also the only public event related to the Wellness Center since a forum with the building’s architects in fall 2018. It hasn’t escaped our notice that it is only because of students’ leadership that this town hall is taking place. We commend student activists like Brown and call on the University to recognize their efforts, give credit where it is due, and to encourage input from a wider array of students, rather than repeat talking points and offer public relations–minded band-aids.

The aim of this editorial is not to repeat the same arguments outlined in numerous Viewpoints op-eds, letters to the editor, Student Government campaign slates, and student-published research—not to mention private conversations between thousands of UChicago students. Instead, we ask that the administration take seriously the arguments students make, commit to additional public conversations about mental health, and actively incorporate student input as the Wellness Center’s opening date nears. Students have spoken; students are speaking. It’s time for the University to listen, and to respond.