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Making mental health a campus priority

| 04 November 2004

Last fall, graduate student Temina Madon submitted a report to the Academic Senate about the status of mental health on campus. She drew together a group of graduate students, the Graduate Assembly Mental Health Task Force, to co-author the report. In preparing her ambitious plan to alter Berkeley’s status quo treatment of the emotionally ill, she solicited suggestions from the Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) unit of University Health Services and researched programs in place at other universities.

The report, “Prioritizing Mental Health: A Campus Imperative,” began with the latest findings from CPS. In the past five years, the unit has seen a 30-percent increase in demand for individual counseling sessions, with an accompanying rise in the severity of students’ problems. Relationship break-ups, identity concerns, and career quandaries were formerly the most typical issues that students brought to the counseling center. Today’s students are more likely to need help with serious clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and psychosis conditions that often require emergency services and hospitalization.

This analysis is in keeping with a national trend. According to a 2004 survey by the American College Health Association, at one time or another almost half of all students find themselves so depressed they have trouble functioning; 15 percent meet the criteria for clinical depression.

What the Berkeley campus needs, contends Madon, is a multifaceted plan to address and review its policies relating to students’ emotional well-being. In “Prioritizing Mental Health” she and her fellow graduate students advocate for the creation of a committee on student mental health that would be comprised of a mix of key administrators, Academic Senate staff, faculty members, CPS staff, and students. Their charge would be to review the “policies, practices, and climate of the Berkeley campus to determine how adequately they support students’ emotional and academic well-being,” and then make recommendations to improve upon the current situation.

Madon and her colleagues propose that such a committee might consider a system to track and collect data concerning student deaths and withdrawals due to mental health problems, departmental self-reviews relating to levels of emotional support provided to students, and a review of existing educational materials designed to help faculty recognize and assist emotionally distressed students. Other suggestions include requiring incoming freshmen, transfers, and graduate students to participate in workshops on how to succeed and thrive emotionally at Berkeley. Because graduate-student instructors typically have more contact with undergrads than professors do, further training might be implemented to help them recognize students who are in need of attention. In her report, Madon and her colleagues also recommend that the patterns of use of the university’s medical-leave policy be reviewed to ascertain how often students opt to withdraw for mental-health reasons. They also advocate ensuring that students with mental-health problems are aware that withdrawal is an option.

Recently, a year after submitting her report, Madon received what she calls “a great piece of news” from Robert Knapp, chair of the Academic Senate, who told her the Senate had voted to recommend to Chancellor Birgeneau that he convene a campuswide committee on student mental health.

“We have a choice about what kind of community we’re going to maintain,” says Madon, who is dedicated to creating a more balanced climate on campus. “It can be one that’s really cold and results-based, or one that places a priority on health as well as academic excellence.”