Free Speech Friday

Students can help fill the gaps in mental health care. Here's how.

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Mental health has gained unprecedented visibility on college campuses nationwide. The University of Washington is no exception. Registered student organizations and ASUW initiatives have increasingly focused attention to the subject, and university wide resources have been increasingly marketed to students. Yet, the fact remains that one in four students at UW will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition, and the overwhelming majority of them are not receiving care. Moreover, the resources on campus are woefully insufficient, as evidenced by long wait times, complicated chains of referral, and failure to follow up with students in need. Both Hall Health Center and the Counseling Center are simply unequipped to handle a quarter of the student population. Academic services are even less equipped, given shortages in human resources. The inability of students to access such resources is itself the root of the mental health crisis on campus. And it's costing students both their educations and lives.

Lack of resource accessibility goes beyond mere logistics. For as diverse and multifaceted as the student body is, UW resources tend to cater to a majority white, U.S. born, and wealthy audience. Those who fall outside of this archetype are homogenized and trivialized, which understandably deters them from pursuing available services. Both medical and academic resources at UW tend to take a colorblind approach to support, thereby ignoring the diversity and intersectionality of identities and experiences. Yet, the individual realities of mental illness, trauma, and academic difficulty are far from ubiquitous. The struggles that students find themselves in are informed by their identities, life histories, social interactions, and environment. None have simple explanations, and none have simple answers. Dismissal of these complex experiences, disregard for cultural variation, and homogenization of suffering only perpetuates the current crisis. If students are not validated in their pain, they will not pursue support. Gaps in care will widen, the therapeutic landscape will deteriorate, and students will get sicker.

Realistically, UW is unlikely to expand its services or revise its bare-minimum approach to "cultural competency" anytime soon. The amount of financial and human resources it would take to increase capacity for care, undo centuries worth of racial and cultural bias, and actually deliver quality services is simply far more than the university is willing to spend. This is a disheartening reality, and one for which students pay the price. But we ought not resign ourselves to the same apathy.

UW won't fill its gaps in mental health care. But students can start to.

I'm not a mental health counselor, or a medical professional, or an expert on psychology. I have no clue how to navigate the bureaucratic nightmares of the healthcare system, the legal system, or the university. On a technical level, I am wholly incompetent when it comes to provision of mental health services.

But I am a student. A student who nearly dropped out of UW, due to my experiences with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety. I'm a survivor, and my experience informs everything I do. My story has shaped who I am — as a scholar, as a colleague, and as an anthropologist. My ability to share my story, and to find solidarity, is ultimately what has allowed me to heal. And I know I'm not alone in this.

Students don't need medical degrees or social work licenses to care for each other. We don't need an office setting or an exam room. What we need is a group of students committed to addressing this crisis. A peer counselor network, composed of students with diverse life experiences and hardships, that can support fellow students encountering similar circumstances. One that acknowledges — no, celebrates — heterogeneity and intersectionality. One that can provide daily in-person emotional support and validation, and 24/7 virtual conversations as needed. One that can give students space to speak their truth. That can give students a place to process, a place to heal.

There will, of course, be limitations. We obviously can't pretend to be psychiatrists, lawyers, and social workers. There will be instances where we will have to refer higher, and advocate for students in need of more specialized support. But together, we can do what many of UW's resources can't: listen. And though that might be the mere tip of the iceberg, that doesn't make it any less valuable. We can mitigate the mental health emergency and transform the therapeutic landscape on this campus. All we need is a collective commitment to listen with compassion and solidarity. The time to start is now.

Hannah Henrikson

UW student, Medical Anthropology and Global Health 2020

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