Fall Quarter of 2021 was an experience I will never forget. My friends and I, leaving campus as freshmen and returning as juniors, felt jaded and unprepared. An overwhelming majority of my peers expressed anxiety with the abrupt shift in academic pressure. A combination of dulled motivation and skills exacerbated mental health issues across the board. I saw those around me experience sickness, debilitating anxiety and death in their family. Even with the school’s tremendous focus on a healthy return to campus, mental health measures were lacking and appointments sparse. As the omicron variant sends familiar chills through school communities, we need to reduce academic pressure and invest equally in mental health.

Students and school officials agree COVID-19 is harming mental health, but there are many unknowns requiring more data and longitudinal studies. What we do know is that in the decade before COVID-19, mental health issues like depression and anxiety had risen 50% among individuals under 25, with one in five students suffering from a mental health condition. In the fall of 2020, a multi-university study revealed half of all students screened positive for prevailing conditions, while 83% reported mental health negatively impacted their academic performance. Increased stress levels fell disproportionately on women, people of color and other minority communities.

I feel these early warning signs show mental health becoming a new, more evasive pandemic that we are unprepared for. A few questions have lingered with me since the end of finals. Where are the emails? The mental health check-ins? The basic recognition of how surreal things are? UC Santa Barbara and its health departments, like Counseling & Psychological Services (C.A.P.S.), have taken some steps toward addressing the crisis. Before the pandemic, the Mental Health Peer Program (MHPP) was created to connect more students with services. The school is currently holding workshops that facilitate stress reduction and meditation, as well as beginning to track the evolving needs of students. But from my friend’s and my perspective, most recognition and support has come from teachers. Asking around, I heard from a vast majority of people that mental health affected their finals week experiences. Finding public and private help was generally less accessible and/or affordable than they expected and C.A.P.S. appointments were difficult to schedule, especially for unexpected crises.

A concerning theme my peers and I found was vague department discretion for handling everything from extension requests to doctor’s notes. While I was lucky enough to receive timely responses, others waited several days during finals week to have important personal hardships addressed. Every college, department and the courses within them seem to have unclear, complex guidelines for dealing with personal adversities. The pandemic has made these hoops an increasing source of stress for all of us. To assume that the impact of this is minute is to assume everyone has access to the same resources. Equating students who have their therapist or psychiatrist on speed dial with those who can’t afford similar services is abhorrent. In such critical times, like during finals, we deserve a transparent, universal process for tackling student distress.

With our hard work and financial commitment to this institution, we shouldn’t have to bounce between emailing professors, calling hotlines and scrambling for health appointments.

It is no secret that mental health is a statistically significant predictor of our physical health. Long-term mental health struggles are associated with reduced social and physical activity and healthy lifestyle choices. This is a serious concern for students because this prolonged stress and the habits they reinforce reduce our frontline immune response, not only impacting the fight against COVID-19 but all transmissible sicknesses.

If you were on campus for even a week, you would have witnessed the endless waves of horrible colds and viruses most students experienced. While trying to be more diligent, I still ended up with at least three weeklong illnesses. These outbreaks are most likely because of our previous social isolation, but to keep ourselves healthy we must not neglect the mental health component. So, where do we begin?

The school should take the first initiative by directly reducing stigma around our mental health post-lockdown. Verbally recognizing that mental health is health, rather than a separate fight from COVID-19, is a key component of this effort. The school’s attention and funding should reflect this by increasing available appointments, hiring more C.A.P.S. Mental Health Peers and working with departments to better prepare for midterms and finals season. I’m sure many of us would feel more relaxed if the school administrators were actively discussing more predictable avenues through which we could advocate for ourselves to explain personal situations. If they already have or are doing so currently, information on these changes needs to be more accessible to students. With our hard work and financial commitment to this institution, we shouldn’t have to bounce between emailing professors, calling hotlines and scrambling for health appointments. It only compounds the stress we are trying to convey to the departments that we have dedicated so much of our time to.

A great way to begin the conversation is to simply ask us about our mental health. Universal screening is a well-studied approach and can be easily implemented into our college classrooms post-COVID. Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) was created to identify at-risk students and connect them with school resources. Anonymous questionnaires under these frameworks have been developed to predict mental health concerns. UCSB could integrate these strategies through monthly check-ins or middle-of-term surveys. While it may be figuratively silly, a “Green Badge” for mental health could be necessary to fully grasp our mental health crisis.

I do feel more comfortable heading into winter quarter about how to prepare for academic stress. But I am still anxious about unforeseen crises I may experience and for others who still feel disconnected from our current mental health services. This needs to be a school-wide community effort because negative stigma and resource inequality remain a significant barrier to a healthy student-teacher-faculty relationship. Although the state of our current mental health crisis is unsettling, I am confident that awareness from our school and among ourselves can promote tangible solutions.

Devin Anderson believes that mental health concerns are becoming a defining feature for college students returning to campus and must be addressed directly to reduce stigma and academic stress.