LETTERS

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February 23, 2020

Let Research and Data Guide Policies on Mental Health


The Campus Policy Research Institute (CPRI) is a nonpartisan, student-run think tank dedicated to the study of issues critical to student life at the University of Chicago. Our mission is to propose implementable, evidence-based policy recommendations to inform decision-makers at all levels in a continued effort to advance the interests of all students. Since our founding, we have launched six independent studies on topics ranging from student mental health to student governance. 

This fall, we took on the study of student mental health at the University of Chicago with the greatest sense of urgency and gravity. Two project teams undertook comprehensive research efforts to better understand the state of student mental health at the University and the various policies we could implement to improve mental health–related resources on campus. Our internal team studied the context of the problem of mental health at the University of Chicago while our external team conducted research at peer institutions to see how other colleges were more successfully addressing the issue. Both teams produced reports that are now published on our website, and we encourage you to read them at www.cprichicago.org.

Our internal report is intended as a comprehensive assessment of the state of mental health at the University of Chicago. Researchers conducted a campus-wide climate survey to understand how students were interacting with mental health resources provided by the University as well as interviews with key administrators and various stakeholders. The results were shocking. While 82.6 percent of responding undergraduates have considered using Student Counseling Service (SCS) services, only 49.8 percent have gone to SCS to receive help. This discrepancy widened when it came to queer students and students of color. Additionally, over 65 percent of students reported a wait time of at least two weeks before receiving SCS assistance, and the majority claimed to be “unsatisfied” after their appointments. As a whole, mental health services at the University are understaffed and underfunded in their current state. 

Our external report focused on finding solutions to the issues identified in our internal report. Researchers first identified which schools we could consider comparable to the University of Chicago in terms of the mental health programs they provide. Additionally, standards were set for what successful mental health programs ought to accomplish. Mental health programs at these peer institutions were then evaluated according to our standards, and the most promising ones identified for further investigation. Our researchers visited MIT, Boston College, and Northwestern, schools with top mental health programs, and conducted on-site surveys and interviews to better understand exactly how students were engaging with the resources on their campuses. Results from the surveys were used to determine how successful these programs were, and we crafted a nuanced list of policy recommendations for the best mental health resources we could implement here at UChicago.

The first policy we advocate for is a University of Chicago fund for student mental health projects. This exciting program would create a grant-funding agency through which students and faculty can apply to finance their own independent mental health and wellness–related projects. We believe it will empower students in the collective effort to combat mental illness by directing the innovation potential of our student body toward a vital cause. Instead of the one-size-fits-all, top-down remedies that often fail to address the root causes of student problems, such a fund would be able to combat mental health issues as they arise on our campus. Most importantly, this fund is entirely feasible, as it has worked with proven, cost-effective success at our peer institutions. In fact, the net costs of MIT’s fund, the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, have been only $180,000 over a period of four years, an insignificant fraction of the UChicago operating budget. The fund developed Lean on Me, a program that has spread to the University of Chicago and become one of the most well-known peer-to-peer mental health resources on our campus. 

Our second proposal, a centralized academic planning office, is much more ambitious, but would perhaps lead to the most significant improvement in student well-being. This office would be a centralized location for students in need of academic exceptions due to stress, mental illness, or other personal-life factors. Staffed by mental health professionals rather than academic advisers, this office would allow struggling students to create academic plans that best suit both their academic and personal needs. Faculty would then be bound to whatever academic exceptions prescribed by the office—be they essay extensions, moving exams, etc. Interestingly, at MIT, there is no tension between professors and MIT’s planning office; professors often recommend students to the office, as they recognize that a student’s well-being comes before the due date of a problem set or a paper. Sympathetic, trained care from mental health professionals is far more conducive to students’ success than when these decisions are left to the whims of untrained and sometimes unsympathetic academics. Over 80 percent of MIT students surveyed had used the planning office, and there was an overwhelming consensus that this service had made a positive, substantial impact on students’ lives. Overall, a centralized academic office would allow students to realize their potential and perform at the highest level while taking care of their own health and well-being. 

There is much more to our reports than what we have written above; to say that this has been an effective encapsulation would not do our hardworking researchers justice. As such, we encourage you to take a few minutes and read our two reports on mental health. The more informed students are, the closer we get to true change—change that needs to happen, and, if the student body stays educated and innovative, *will* happen. 

This is something we firmly believe applies to many of the issues we face on our campus. If you feel like there is an aspect of student life that is currently understudied or unquantified, please do not hesitate to reach out and make your concerns heard. 

Signed, 

The Directors and Researchers of Campus Policy Research Institute
cprichicago.org
 

  

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