February 20, 2020

Settling for Average?

UChicago's mental health supports require improvement and standardization.

There is a running joke I’ve heard on campus: after securing an appointment with the Student Counseling Service (SCS), you’ll either be better or dead when your timeslot finally rolls around.

For those of us struggling with mental health on campus, what professors and administration lack understanding of is that debilitating illnessnot lack of discipline and ability to measure up to UChicago’s rigor—is what gets in the way of our success. In fact, we are some of the strongest, kindest, brightest, and most capable visionaries in the world who can achieve incredible things with the right support. We deserve to be ambitious. We deserve equal opportunities to strive for our individual goals, whatever they may be.

Instead, we are told to drop a class, major, out of school, and altogether just whatever dreams we had in general. We are forced on leaves of absence since we obviously can’t handle things. Our identities become fused with our illnesses. These “solutions” do nothing to support the numerous students on campus struggling with mental health. Following a leave, we are plunged right back into the environment that cultivated or exacerbated our breakdowns in the first place. Something must be done about the way that students are being supported on campus during the academic quarter. Otherwise, the exuberant talent and unique effervescence that our minds—which are as gorgeous as they are chaotic—have to offer are lost to UChicago.

This fall, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after several excruciating years of bouncing from doctor to doctor, drug to drug. A mid-October mania set me back a full academic week, and one of the worse depressed states I’ve ever experienced that followed didn’t afford me the energy to catch up, much less keep up with work after that. For the first time in my academic career, I asked for an extension on a major assignment, citing medical issues. The TA and professor denied it, still grading my work ruthlessly after I turned it in two days late. For another class, I failed to make a single lecture and handed every P-set in late. Student Disability Services (SDS) never processed some of the accommodations I requested that would’ve helped with these difficulties. Left with marginal support, I threw my health away striving for academic excellence, day after unbearable day, until I pushed myself over the edge.

On the Tuesday of 11th week, I fled a final in an intense panic attack and was sent to the ER by SCS and UCPD before being transferred to the psychiatric ward in Ingalls.

Institutional failures from all fronts must converge to reach devastating outcomes like mine and that of many others still suffering alone, drifting in and out of hospitals. Firstly, I could not meet my psychiatrist as often as I needed to, because SCS could not afford me more time. This front failed to provide me the medical help I needed. Next, my professors did not support me, as previously mentioned. This front failed to ameliorate my stress and anxiety. Lastly, SDS failed to process some accommodations that would’ve helped tremendously in keeping up with my classes. This front failed to support my academic adjustment. Hospital confinement, felony charges, suicide, and ruinous outcomes in general don’t just materialize out of the blue, but from an accumulation of infinite layers of institutional failures, from falling through safety net after safety net after safety net.

In terms of stronger safety nets, the student body needs consistent, efficacious, and individualized support from the school: not watered-down hot chocolate on the quad, some cute labradors, the “Therapy helped changed my life” ad featuring a blown-up image of Michael Phelps’s face, and surveys investigating what kind of furniture we prefer in the new Wellness Center. Although the recent years have seen progress, we still need more SCS staff, particularly counselors with diverse cultural/LGBTQ+ specialties, as well as more walk-in appointments with longer hours of availability. There is currently exactly one walk-in crisis counselor. He leaves at 4 p.m. every day, so try not to have a crisis after that. In fact, just don’t have crises at all if you’re a student with classes all day—the Alumni House, where SCS is located, shuts its doors at 5 p.m.

In addition to elongating service hours, there should be some standardized policies or funding programs supporting student mental health, as opposed to surrendering jurisdiction to the whims of professors. In a meeting between the executive CARE slate and administration including president Robert Zimmer, CARE pushed for allowing students to be excused from class for SCS appointments, to which Dean Michele Rasmussen countered that the administration does not want to interfere with how professors run their classrooms. In response, CARE noted that there are absolutely no existing policies mandating how professors should handle the mental health needs of their students, and that is a cause for concern. There is nothing in place protecting our students. It’s important to establish some standardized procedure that requires professors to allow mental health accommodations of the acute, immediate kind that cannot afford the time to wait to be squeezed into a narrow timeslot in SCS or filtered through SDS’s lengthy, time-consuming process. These micro-accommodations would have little direct consequence on the core structure or curriculum of any given class, and may provide students the immediate relief that is so crucial when it comes to acute episodes.

With regard to budget allocation, there should be some initiative by administration to reserve financial endowments for campus movements, conferences, and organizations revolving around mental health, instead of leaving it up to our RSOs to claw through the bureaucratic red tape to apply for funding. The Campus Policy Research Institute (CPRI) recently published an extensive external review of the mental health services, resources, and programs offered by leading colleges. Notably, MIT has two unique programs: Student Support Services (S3) and MindHandHeart (MHH). S3 is a centralized academic planning service run by mental health professionals that assists students in formulating an academic plan that fully considers and effectively ensures any needs and accommodations are met. Professors are obligated to follow the plans created by S3. MHH generously funds student projects aimed towards improving mental health, such as the volunteer coalition of students and faculty who plan and pilot new, innovative ways to bolster service and resources. So far, MHH has awarded over $180,000 to 57 different projects. In addition, Boston College offers same-day consultations, as well as consistent, long-term therapy.

            These multifaceted approaches to boosting student mental health go way beyond what UChicago offers us. According to the Health and Wellness Committee chairs of Student Government (SG), in a meeting between the Committee and wellness administrators Dr. Meeta Kumar, new director of SCS, and Mario Polizzi, assistant vice president for student services whose areas of oversight include student health, counseling, and disabilities, the administration side reported utter satisfaction when asked about the school’s mental health climate—UChicago’s mental health resources and accessibility are perfectly average relative to other colleges, warranting no exigency to improve. There’s absolutely no concern at all.

We should focus on Woodlawn Commons, another gym, a hotel, and molecular engineering instead! Optimistically assuming that we indeed are, allegedly, average on this front, when were we ever satisfied with just average?

            Is the University of Chicago an institution that just settles for the average?

Fanheng Ye is a second-year in the College.