UCLA could capitalize on academic potential to provide mental health instruction
(Muling Shi/Daily Bruin)
By Nora McNulty
April 15, 2019 10:08 p.m.
This post was updated April 16 at 10:18 p.m.
They say numbers tell the story. Here are a couple:
About 45% of Bruins screened since January 2017 fall on some spectrum of depression or anxiety. One hundred thousand people are being studied by the university to identify the genetic and biologic factors associated with depression.
Here’s another: UCLA has only one faculty-taught class on mental health.
UCLA has cutting-edge mental health research, hosts dozens of related programs and initiatives and seemingly sees a new mental health club every day. There is no debating that it has all the bells and whistles of a concerned, conscious community as it pertains to mental health.
But virtually no majors, with the exception of psychology, require students to take courses related to mental health. So while Bruin Walk may be teeming with mental health awareness flyers, and the university brimming with programs designed to help the student body, that all goes poof the minute most students enter a lecture hall.
In the end, services like Counseling and Psychological Services end up prioritizing high-risk cases, leaving many students either underserved, waiting on long waitlists or turned away.
There’s a clear separation at UCLA between wellness and academics. This sends a dangerous message to our students: The two are mutually exclusive.
This dichotomy is a toxic narrative promulgated by the way we talk about choosing between mental health and academics, rather than choosing both. The university needs to integrate the two by making mental health education a part of the academic experience of all students to help them better handle and process the often-overwhelming nature of college.
The reality is UCLA cannot, regardless of its services, adequately serve the critical mental health needs of its more than 40,000 students. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day or counselors at CAPS to properly address and manage the many struggles the student body faces. Funding, resources and time are limited, though they are seldom viewed as such.
This is where academics can come in – universities, after all, excel at teaching students. A uniform education can raise the bar of mental health literacy at UCLA.
The university currently offers one such course, called Sociology 88SB: “You, Me, and Our Mental Health,” which is taught through the Undergraduate Student Initiated Education program. This program allows a select number of upperclassmen to develop and teach a lower-division seminar-style course.
“UCLA is so academically oriented, and we put so much strength on our academics, that when you teach (about mental health) as a class, it validates the information,” said Zarina Wong, a third-year study of religion student and the teacher of the class.
Wong’s course aims to raise awareness of mental health, educate students on the topic and lower the related stigma. This sort of dialogue is crucial: At a prestigious university such as UCLA, mental health often falls by the wayside in place of academic or career-related performance.
Requiring students to take at least one course on the importance of mental health, as well as its signs, symptoms and prevalence, would demonstrate the validity of mental health issues and arm students with coping strategies, wellness tips and resilience trainings to face their college years.
“There’s a certain level of knowledge at which, if you possess it, the amount of stigma you’re likely to express is markedly reduced,” said Robert Bilder, chief of medical psychology – neuropsychology at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
And some small, but important, steps already are being taken.
“We’re working on building a minor specifically on mental health and well-being,” Bilder said. “We’d be eager to see that kind of curriculum put in place.”
This sort of minor would both make a statement and vastly influence our student body. Adding a full area of study related to mental health and wellness boldly shows this issue is worthy of in-depth study and attention. But a necessary further step would be to require each student to take a class from the minor.
Some may argue that the university simply should focus on improving the existing mental health services, such as CAPS. But the reality is that the prevalence of mental health issues in college years cannot be tackled by one office with a limited staff. A baseline education requirement could provide students with the tools they need to thrive, and ultimately lessen the inundation CAPS experiences.
Mental health is inextricable from the human experience and is especially relevant during college years, a time characterized by rapid change and novelty. In fact, according to the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, depression frequently manifests in college years.
Our campus is an environment replete with opportunity. Here we have a susceptible audience in a formative time period – two characteristics that open the door for immense change.
It’s time the numbers start reflecting that too.