On UC San Diego alone, there have been several articles (here is one by The Triton) about problems arising with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) regarding students not receiving ideal treatment as a result of our mental healthcare center being severely underfunded. Multiple week-long waiting periods to see a counselor are the norm, and unfortunately, our C+ mental health evaluation is comparatively ranked among the highest in the UC system. In fact, poor ratings for college mental health services are not unique to the UC system. As Scientific American shows, they are down all over the country. Colleges are noticing a spike in anxiety and depression, and counseling services find themselves “woefully underprepared.”
However, this article by The Atlantic explains the spike is a result of increases in demand for mental health services caused by college mental health progress. The problem that CAPS and other campus mental healthcare services are facing stems directly from the hard work of psychologists, counselors, and student advocates. Awareness of mental health issues is increasing, and with it, so is student interest in mental health treatment. So although miserable waiting periods to see a counselor seem to reaffirm hopelessness, the very fact of CAPS being overwhelmed suggests promise: The more students seek treatment for anxiety and depression, the further we progress on comprehensive mental health as a culture.
But this progress is facing a backlash, mainly voiced by conservative critics. They claim that students are unnecessarily coddled by the the language of mental health and the implementation of political correctness on college campuses. Trigger warnings are often cited as a misguided classroom practice, which betrays its efforts to care for students who potentially may have symptoms of a particular mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a community-based approach to mental health, trigger warnings appear logical—a rigorous commitment to a more therapeutic, and therefore more comprehensive, learning space. However, partisan debates surrounding trigger warnings miss a larger point: Because students have not yet had access to reliable mental healthcare through institutions like CAPS, they are forced to bring it into college curriculums.
The lack of vigorous and proactive therapy services for students marks a larger cultural predicament for academia. Starting with primary education, our sense of happiness and contentment has been subordinated by examinations, papers, and other indicators of academic success. Keeping this in mind, we need to understand that UC San Diego’s prestige benefits when stress is your motivator. This mindset is a standard (and an undoubtedly productive) one we use to cope with mental suffering. College students, unfortunately, while often committed to the dismantling of other fear-driven ideologies in order to promote social equality and progress, are pervasively worried on the personal level. Far from truly appreciating the majors we have declared, many of us experience alienation from our own education. The university system increasingly profits from our enrollment, research, and graduation, and yet it needs us to feel restless towards our schoolwork, our emotions, and our peers with whom we are in competition. Persistent anxiety and depression in higher education shows exactly how the current academic ideology is flawed: The more we strive to mentally ‘improve’ along meritocratic and intellectual lines, the further we escape from our own life fulfillment.
In general, the problems we face now with CAPS exist because of increased awareness of the importance of mental health and the subsequent increase in seeking sufficient treatment. But while CAPS and its equivalents are severely under-resourced, part of their inadequacies must stem from the fact that the success of UCSD and other universities depend on students not being fully conscious of their pain. If we had a time and place to be completely vulnerable, to freely associate, and to discover the hopes and fears we constantly hide from ourselves, it would be normal to realize that we are not actually pursuing what we want. And colleges, fearing that we might not desire to study biochemical engineering, data science, or literature at all, but to do something else completely outside of academia, would be in trouble. Education today simply cannot afford the student body learning about itself.
Seeing that there is an inherent contradiction between students and their institutions is the first step toward creating a more humane academia. This needs to start on the personal level: as an example, I strongly suggest imagining the idea of dropping out at least a couple of times while at UCSD. Envisioning my own future without UC San Diego reveals the contingency in the things I do, and as a result, school becomes more meaningful. The moments of happiness begin to add up quickly — not least because this kind of pessimism is positively affecting my class performance, and is beginning to inform my educational path. In fact, I was recently given the opportunity to present at this year’s Undergraduate Research Conference to share related ideas to my peers about therapy (in academese) with respect to film history and philosophy. In questioning my default mode of thinking about college education, paradoxically, I have started learning how to live with its contradictions, and also how to process life in fresh, creative ways.
We still want to graduate, we still want to make our families and friends proud of our accomplishments, and we still want a job with close ties to our self-image—and all of this is okay. When the labor becomes too much, though—and it will—we should remember that higher education is already losing its ideological strength. As each of us face the reality of the vast mental health crisis in our own ways, we will already be fostering a better university culture.
Nathaniel Imel is a Staff Writer for The Triton.