What happens when visionaries in science and scholarship unite with the community to solve one giant global problem?
Apparently, a few vague promises touted as solutions.
UCLA has a set of programs called Grand Challenges, which exist as a long-term set of projects involving faculty and students to tackle world problems ranging from sustainability to the nation’s mental health epidemic. One of the more emphasized challenges, the Depression Grand Challenge, promises to cut instances of depression in half by 2050.
The DGC’s current answer to cutting depression in half is putting donations toward newly researched ideas and a few electronic surveys and online therapy programs. However, these end up acting more as a means of getting data for the long-term research study. Peer-to-peer and interpersonal guidance programs are still lacking.
This is all happening while UCLA has a raging mental health crisis on campus.
It’s common knowledge that depression and other mental health issues create an undeniable crisis that the Counseling and Psychological Services center and outsourced counseling services cannot tackle alone. The DGC focuses on understanding depression from a multitude of factors, and treating it using that knowledge. However, to be able to reduce instances of depression by half in 30 years’ time, the program needs to be able to offer more than a research study – especially when numerous students on campus need support with their mental health.
In order to truly begin cutting down cases of depression, the DGC needs to develop and publicize more programs directly involving students, centered on peer guidance and others like it.
The DGC offers students the Screening and Treatment for Anxiety and Depression Program, which uses an online questionnaire and mental health tracker to diagnose and treat symptoms of depression. Those who take the survey get “personalized feedback” in the form of points on a scale, and a laundry list of mental health contacts, including CAPS, the Anxiety and Depression Research Center and the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative.
The mental health tracker is one of the most advertised aspects of the program, from incentives of gift cards to a grand prize raffle. But the feedback users get aren’t specific to their life circumstances. The DGC is able to diagnose depressive symptoms, but can’t provide help for its users who need more than a mood gauge.
Jamie Kennerk, a fourth-year political science student and Undergraduate Students Association Council external vice president, said surveys regarding mental health can be hit or miss.
“It depends how the survey is set up,” Kennerk said. “It’s a good concept, but I’m a bit skeptical as to just how effective they can be, since sometimes the questions themselves can be potential triggers for past experiences.”
Following the STAND program, students participating in the DGC are enrolled in a six-week internet cognitive behavioral therapy program, which tracks phone usage and mood behavior.
But this treatment is not a truly personalized resource, especially when the online cognitive behavioral therapy program itself acts like another health class. It focuses on short quizzes and reading lessons each week, tackling issues ranging from recognizing your thoughts to confronting your fears. Without having the physical empathy and encouragement a peer or counselor can provide, it’s too reminiscent of a simple self-help class instead of a treatment plan.
But the DGC has promising elements. The STAND program is paired with the Resilience Peer Network, which rigorously trains students to become accredited peer counselors who listen and guide students through mental health needs.
Nelson Freimer, the director of the DGC, said the program acts as a way to involve students and their peers as “coaches” through many of the steps of the college experience that can be difficult.
“Many people benefit a lot from senior students who have gone through similar experiences and can help guide them,” Freimer said.
But an underutilized program is not going to be very effective for anyone, especially if it doesn’t have a chance to be so without more developments and opportunities like it. RPN isn’t spoken in the same vein as other mental health resources, and you probably won’t find much about it on the DGC web page.
“I haven’t heard of it before,” Kennerk said.
Depression can make college and life much harder than it should ever be. With loneliness and mental health struggles on the rise, it’s important to be there for fellow students each step of the way. The DGC was created to address this enormous problem, and it can’t hope to do so without instituting programs that provide Bruins with some form of mental health care.
Of course the DGC has a lofty goal that requires numerous studies and great amounts of data and experimentation. However it shouldn’t only benefit Bruins after 2050. It’s meant to be an innovative program that provides all Bruins with new forms of treatment and support as they are developed.
The DGC can do a lot to make UCLA’s fight for better mental health care more effective. But it can do more by making an immediate difference on campus.
After all, it is supposed to be more than just a well-funded research project.