The Evolving Narrative of Campus Mental Health Services

UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services is outdated, tired, and more concerned with processing every student in need than addressing those needs meaningfully. But trust me, they know they have a problem. 

USAC General Representative 1 hosted a town hall style event that was open to the public on Nov. 21 to address student concerns and to communicate the plans they have to engage with issues pertaining specifically to marginalized communities on campus. The top priority for these groups was a common need for better mental health services that considered cultural experiences. The meeting was attended by two representatives from CAPS who acknowledged the common narrative created by students that CAPS is unavailing and frankly, disappointing.

I can recall countless student accounts concerning experiences with trying to seek mental health services while at UCLA — all with bleak outcomes. The process begins with a brief mental health screening, which is performed on a walk-in basis. After filling out forms regarding the nature of the student’s visit, the student will visit a counselor briefly to discuss the next steps for treatment options. This is the point where choosing to utilize a school-provided mental health resource begins to look unpromising. 

Obtaining a session with a therapist is based on the “level of risk” of a patient. The CAPS representative explained that they must triage students and “if someone is at risk for certain things, they will receive immediate service. If they are in significant distress but not at risk, they end up with an appointment up to a month later, which is too long.” It becomes a risky game when a student who may not be in immediate danger must wait to receive psychological services. While waiting for their scheduled appointment, it is possible that one’s mental state could worsen. In some cases, the long wait times are off-putting altogether and students won’t return after being told to wait so long. 

How do we deal with this? Issues concerning mental health are complex and precarious; the decision for a student in need to seek out mental health services can often be a drawn-out and highly contemplated process. The system in which some students are prioritized while others are put on the back-burner can be invalidating and deterring. However, it is not completely without reason. CAPS has limited staff to assess student needs, which is why they continue to increase their staff numbers every year. This increase has allowed them to take in more students and have a lower turnover rate in their workers. Nevertheless, it is strenuous to constantly keep up with student demand for therapists. Counselors often give students the option to utilize their insurance to seek outside therapists if they do not wish to wait. However, they have noticed that students are not as comfortable with this option. As a result, CAPS has begun to advocate for students to utilize some of their other on-campus resources which they have recently instituted.

It is unknown amongst many students that CAPS has established “drop-ins” in specific locations throughout UCLA. Sessions can be located within the transfer, veteran, and LGBTQ centers, as well as the schools of Law, Business, Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health. The representatives acknowledge the fact that these are underutilized, due to poor publicity efforts done by CAPS themselves. Other resources from CAPS like “Coping with the Quarter” are used to teach students skills such as time management, relaxation skills, and self-awareness. The emphasis on these alternatives to clinical therapy is in light of the fact that counselors have noticed that some students may not require psychotherapy, but rather a safe space with a more casual setting. 

Once you receive an appointment with CAPS, you are allotted a different number of sessions depending on whether or not you are covered with UCLA’s insurance, SHIP. Students who are not covered by UC SHIP are granted 3 sessions to “keep services more open to SHIP students because CAPS is their only option.” SHIP students are given up to 6 sessions until a counselor refers them to outside therapists with $5 copays. However, if at any point a clinician feels they need more time, their sessions at CAPS could be extended. One discussion that CAPS staff continues to have is how students will pay for transportation to seek out these outside clinical resources.

By focusing on issues specific to marginalized or underrepresented students, CAPS has begun to implement therapy groups unique to certain communities, such as the Undocuscholars Therapy Group, Gender Identity Spectrum Group, Black and Bruin, etc. However, there is a limit of one therapy group per quarter and a maximum of three quarters in the same therapy group for each student, and students wishing to join are subject to pre-screening before joining. Each group has targeted topics that the therapy addresses, such as “navigating cultural contexts,” “promoting a sense of community” and “coping with minority stress and gender binary norms.” These types of healing circles are the result of the fact that mental health issues do not exist in a vacuum, and varying social identities and realities take a toll on students in individual ways.

The systematic oppression of some groups has perpetuated a cycle in which minority groups struggling with mental health issues have fallen through the cracks without receiving culturally sensitive and specific assistance. The CAPS representative acknowledged this and explained that some of these issues can be addressed by the student body because “they stem directly from UCLA” while others will take larger, more sustainable efforts as they are a direct consequence of society as a whole.

While they admit their shortcomings, “We realize how broken we are,” CAPS demands that UC higher ups provide more support across all universities. With more resources, it would be possible to implement a mental health unit within each department and expedite their services. However, just as we demand high-quality mental health services from our university, CAPS asks that students do their part to increase awareness and begin to think more creatively about what it means to seek out and receive mental health assistance. The 4 S’s of resilience were created as an effort to “solidify the language when we speak with one another” concerning mental health stigma. “Self-empowerment, self-care through community, seek support services, and sound the alarm” is the new terminology dedicated by CAPS for students to give importance to mental health in the same regards as physical health and to provide an outline in which individuals can address personal needs. These principles should create a communal campus language in order to seek out our own help or assist others possibly in a crisis.

As CAPS moves forward, they are attempting to change the very essence of what exactly it means to receive assistance in terms of mental health and who is benefiting from these services. While the university’s official resource for psychological services is working on its own rebranding of sorts, we are all liable to create space for our fellow bruins, especially those who are typically disregarded in conversations surrounding mental well-being. 

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