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Chris Busco: UCLA needs focus on preventative mental health care for students

(Justin Ma/Daily Bruin)

By Chris Busco

June 11, 2017 2:43 pm

Mental health is a big problem for the University of California. A really big one.

For reference, the number of UC students utilizing counseling services has grown by 54 percent, while the enrollment growth has been 15.5 percent over this same period. Clearly, it’s a mounting problem that needs to be addressed.

The UC’s mental health resources provide services, such as UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services center, that help students who are in need. But these services are reactive and are not able to meet the growing demand for mental health services – CAPS’ lengthy appointment wait times are evidence of that. UCLA must treat the root causes of the mental illness, not the symptoms, by advocating for preventative practices that promote good mental health.

UCLA could do this by implementing a required online summer training course for incoming first-year students to expose them to preventive techniques, such as sticking to a regular sleep schedule. It could then supplement this by stationing representatives on the residential Hill to direct students to the many preventative mental health resources on campus, should they need them.

While many students may be aware of what mental health treatment entails, they may not know exactly what preventative techniques are useful for in promoting good mental health. Furthermore, even if students are aware of preventative techniques, factors such as separation from home and increased financial and academic pressures make it difficult to continuously implement these methods in their daily lives.

According to Dr. Timothy Fong, a UCLA professor of psychiatry, prevention entails what he calls healthy self-care, or in other words, taking care of the body and brain. Fong sketched a brief outline of what this would look like: sleeping six to eight hours per night, eating three or four small meals a day, participating in some form of physical activity and possessing healthy and diverse social connections.

He added that while it may be easy to lay out a simple preventative road map, the difficulty comes in the sustainable implementation of the prevention techniques. However, long-term commitment to preventative techniques could be effectively accomplished by having students complete an online module that provides them with the tools and information to help them apply these preventative techniques.

Similar to the sexual assault module Think About It, UCLA can require students to complete the mental health module before their first year to equip them with useful information and resources before entering the stressful college environment. Ideally, this online program would introduce first-year students to preventative techniques and the research behind them.

Effective prevention techniques could lead to drastic improvements in students’ quality of life and stress management. If students can continuously and actively work toward maintaining a positive mental state, it would help alleviate breakdowns and episodes of extreme anxiety, which just add to students’ already stressful lives.

But commitment to preventative techniques for promoting good mental health should not stop with a brief education. In order for students to implement these techniques in the long term, it is important to have representatives on the Hill who can direct residents to the various preventative mental health care resources on campus – many of which students don’t know about.

UCLA has numerous resources available for promoting good mental health practices, according to Dr. Elizabeth Gong-Guy, executive director for campus and student resilience. These include the UCLA Resilience Peer Network, Mindful Ambassadors and GRIT Peer-to-Peer Coaching. Many of these programs have research-backed services, and some even focus specifically on preventative techniques.

But many of these resources are under so many different names and organizations that it is easy to see how students have difficulty finding, or even knowing where to look for, the program with the correct resources for their situation.

According to Gong-Guy, the reasoning behind not having a central office for mental health resources on campus is because, in a community this large, the multitude of issues and varying degrees of treatment require too large of a scope for a singular office to handle.

This is certainly a valid argument. If students do not know about these resources in the first place or about which ones are right for them, they certainly cannot utilize them. Designated Hill representatives would help students navigate the avenues of preventative mental health options on campus, thereby promoting the diverse programs UCLA already has in place and getting students thinking about their mental health early on.

Of course, implementing an online module and assigning designated Residential Life mental health representatives will be expensive. But surely the benefits to students outweigh these costs. This program would give students the toolbox and the support to forge preventative habits that could lead to a lifetime of good mental health. Moreover, such services can help better balance the student load on CAPS and other campus mental health services.

Mental health is perhaps one of the greatest medical and social challenges of our time.

But what better place to tackle it head-on than at UCLA?

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Chris Busco | Opinion columnist
Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.
Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.
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