The issue of mental health has recently been given a lot of attention on campus. It has been on the agenda of various meetings; it has also been the impetus for the creation of new advisory boards and coalitions. There is a growing sense and demand that the University should not only do more to increase awareness of existing mental health services, but also do a better job of promoting students’ mental wellness overall.
According to a Daily Pennsylvanian article from last week, the Undergraduate Assembly has proposed the creation of an online mental health forum that would be somewhat akin to the Penn Admirer’s Facebook page and allow students to ask anonymous questions to health professionals.
In addition, Counseling and Psychological Services has added hours in the evenings and hired three additional staffers. Groups of students had been advocating for these changes for a while, but funding only recently became available.
The University’s mental health facilities needed to be better resourced, and they still do. At the same time, however, some of these efforts and conversations reflect a flawed understanding of mental health and wellness.
The current conversation implies that CAPS is not well resourced enough to “fix” students’ mental illnesses. But the amount of staffing or funding the University allocates to CAPS is not the issue. Mental illness is not something that is simply “fixed.”
“Mental illness” is not like cancer, and going to CAPS is not the equivalent of radiation. According to its website, some common concerns students have revolve around stress and anxiety, trouble adjusting to college and academic and career concerns. CAPS cannot change the environmental factors that create and contribute to this stress, and after an appointment, we still have to go back to an environment full of those external stressors.
CAPS can help us better manage the stress that comes with balancing a rigorous course load, but it can do relatively little to make those courses less difficult or challenge commonly held conceptions that in addition to acing six courses, we should also
be heavily involved in about five organizations and have meetings scheduled until 2 a.m. We need to take a more active role in addressing these attitudes.
There is no question that CAPS is the best place to go for professional support, and it would be even more effective if complemented by concentrated efforts to bring about cultural change.
We cannot continue to confine the pursuit of mental wellness to a vacuum located on 36th Street, separate from the realities of Penn’s culture. As Ernest Owens reminded us earlier this week in a guest column, it’s also important to find supportive people we trust and feel comfortable talking to elsewhere in the Penn community, in addition to CAPS. Whether it’s a friend, advisor, professor, house dean, cultural center director or mentor, these people are everywhere.
Aside from asking the University to allocate more resources to CAPS and other mental health facilities, it’s also important for us to think about how to create a more positive and healthy campus environment.
We already have several groups that are trying to do this work. Believing that it’s sometimes easier to talk to a peer than a professional, Penn’s chapter of the national organization Active Minds is trying to focus on adult mental health and eliminate the stereotypes that surround it. The student-run mental health group Cogwell tries to help students learn valuable communication skills and encourage the development of tight-knit networks of students who can support one another.
This is something that University staff and administrators can definitely support, encourage and facilitate, but we as students need to play a role as well.
Abel McDaniels is a College sophomore from Lawrenceville, N.J. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.