There’s no universal experience with mental health, but I know what mine is. It’s an itch you can’t scratch, the world at a slight angle that doesn’t straighten out. It’s waking up crying, and it’s a fog that persists even on the brightest spring day.
Before college, I had the privilege of access to mental healthcare that gave me skills to work through pitfalls and panic, and it is not hyperbolic to say that I am capable of attending this school because of such resources. Even as my public high school lacked counseling, my family was able to find a psychologist, and then a psychiatrist as time passed. On campus, though, the stakes for mental well-being are higher than ever; often outside the family and living away from home for the first time, students are more vulnerable, and the influx of new challenges and experiences can be jarring. And yet, the healthcare that sustained me in high school doesn’t exist at UChicago.
As a first year, I didn’t expect my initial interaction with campus mental health resources to come in the form of older students’ complaints. They often described a void that student counseling failed to fill, and since the beginning of my time at UChicago this fall, I have heard again and again about people’s negative experiences with SCS; from months-long wait times to being turned away from long-term resources like therapy as soon as immediate issues were resolved. The most insidious anecdote I heard repeated was the fear of seeking counseling and being turned away, a fear of how a bad experience could jeopardize an already fragile well-being.
I am conscious of this absence on campus because of my own experiences and appreciation for psychiatric and psychological care, but also because of how I see my peers talk about their mental health. I look on with dismay as my friends conflate their punishing habits—caffeine and sleeplessness and stress and social isolation—with a work ethic, sinking into troubling spirals. Our school’s reputation for academic rigor and intellectual intensity is inspiring, but using academics as an excuse to brush real mental health concerns under the rug shouldn’t be acceptable at an institution of this caliber.
Whenever someone I love talks to me about their desperation, or fatigue, or anxiety, I want to be able to point them in the direction of what has saved me so many times; psychiatric guidance, a good therapist, a robust offering of ways for young people to take ownership of their mental health. But I can’t help my friends in that way, because those offerings are simply unavailable on campus.
The work that I can do, though, to build a more accessible campus, comes from my work with Fair Budget UChicago, a campaign within UChicago Student Action dedicated to making sure our school works for us. In the past months, FBU has been working to hold our administration accountable in their construction and staffing of a new Student Wellness Center.
The Student Counseling Service is understaffed, and counselors are overworked and in such demand that it’s clear more funding is necessary. While I have been able to access psychological assessment and communicate with professionals about the kind of care that would be helpful, students seeking resources on campus have no choice but to endure long wait times with no say over who they receive counseling from. Part of the tradeoff that comes with the University Student Health Insurance Plan (USHIP) is that getting a referral from a University-affiliated professional is needed in order to pay for outside services using the insurance, effectively trapping students who rely on student health insurance in a defunct system while more privileged peers, with outside insurance or who can pay out-of-pocket, are able to access alternative options.
At a school with an $8 billion endowment, the idea that there “isn’t enough money for something”—like a large enough staff that every student who seeks treatment is guaranteed speedy treatment—is obscene, particularly when measured up against the things that the University does have money for. The new Woodlawn dorm, for example, replacing Stony Island and continuing in the megadorm trajectory of Campus North, is being constructed with funds that could otherwise go towards meeting student needs.
Mental health isn’t always an exciting issue. It’s personal, individualized, and multifaceted in a way that physical health sometimes isn’t. And yet, at a school where students’ brains are a prized attribute, it is particularly galling that there are so few resources available to us when our brains need some tender love and care. The life of the mind is a life that relies on prioritized mental and emotional wellness. The joy of delving into an ancient text, or immersing oneself in a complicated problem set, is degraded by poor mental health. The quality of our experience at this institution is mediated by our ability to throw ourselves into the pleasure of learning—but that pleasure doesn’t exist when the brain, the most powerful muscle in the body, is in survival mode alone.
In fact, it is the same things that make our school such an exciting place to learn and grow that can make it a dangerous place to ignore mental well-being. All students are vulnerable to mental illness, even and especially the hardest working and highest achieving students. A high-stakes environment like our school is also a breeding ground for anxiety and the toxic coupling of self-worth and measurable performance.
Furthermore, it is vital to note the well documented connection between mental illness and certain identities, specifically marginalized identities. According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), reported rates of mental illness are higher for female-identifying people both as adolescents (13–18) and as adults (18 and above). The same statistics also cite multiracial individuals as being at a higher risk of developing mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ+ people are almost three times as likely as other individuals to report symptoms of mental illness. Which is to say: the impact of mental health falls along the lines of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia—that we see manifested at every other level of society. People who are already the most at risk with regard to violence and financial insecurity are also the most at risk for mental illness.
All of this does, of course, circle back to campus. Even within the halls of our ivy-clad buildings, the social hierarchies of the world creep in. Not only do all students suffer when there is a lack of care for well-being, but the students who suffer the most are the ones who are already at risk in our community. Students from marginalized backgrounds are less likely to have had access to mental health support in high school and earlier, as well as being less able to afford the out-of-pocket cost to seek mental health care from off-campus practitioners.
Understanding the intersections of oppression with regard to accessing mental health care is necessary to understanding what is truly at stake in our administration’s disregard for student needs.
The students whose families aren’t donating large sums of money to the school, or related to trustees, are the ones who stand to lose the most in a university where student mental health needs don’t matter.
The dream of the liberal arts university is that it can be a laboratory for a better world, an experimental bubble in which the chaotic and often cruel realities of our systems of power do not need to reign supreme. Our administration could choose to make this campus into a model for a better society—and it still can.
Fair Budget UChicago is calling on our administrators to publicly commit to broadening the staff of the counseling center, including specialists trained in trauma-informed practice, and with specific areas of expertise, along with establishing points of communication between administrators and the student body. In addition, FBU demands improvements to emergency protocols, and that wait times are lowered to a maximum of two weeks for all care.
UChicago has the resources to meet student needs and the rhetoric to back up decisions. Now all that’s missing is public commitment and action.