UC Santa Barbara’s Associated Students Office of the President held its annual mental health town hall on Feb. 1 at 6 p.m. to discuss the mental health resources available on campus and hear from the campus community about the current state of mental health among the student body.
The event was held via a Zoom webinar, and the discussion was moderated by A.S. Office of the President Mental Health Commissioner Tessa Veksler. There were also two American Sign Language-English interpreters present during the town hall.
Associate Dean and Director for UCSB’s Department of Health & Wellness Sharleen O’Brien, Counseling & Psychological Services (C.A.P.S.) Director Brian Olowude, Director of Campus Advocacy, Resources & Education (C.A.R.E.) Briana Conway and Student Advocate General Geovany Lucero were the event panelists.
“The students and administration who worked on the town hall wanted it to be an environment for all of us to come together and just talk about the tough questions that surround mental health and create a space where students could share their experiences,” A.S. President Yuval Cohen said during the event. “We also wanted the resources that UCSB has to be more accessible to students.”
The event began with a pre-panel question — which was to define what mental health means and the importance of the term — followed by breakout rooms with each panelist for students to ask more personalized questions.
“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being,” O’Brien said as an answer to the first question. “It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, how we relate to ourselves and others and how we make choices.”
Olowude furthered O’Brien’s point, emphasizing that mental health is the root of one’s physical health, because one’s mental state can heavily impact their physical well-being as well.
“Mental health can be argued to take place in the brain or the mind and part of our body that cannot be transplanted,” Olowude said. “Mental health is important because it affects everything else in our body. The brain is powerful enough to make you sick, powerful enough to help you work through pain.”
Next, Veksler asked the panelists what they thought either is or should be the No. 1 priority for mental health at UCSB, which was the first question on a survey sent out to the student community by the Office of the President prior to the event.
“The two things that kept coming to mind for me is equity — equitable access and equity in support for all of our students and the diverse needs that we have on campus — as well as delivering services and meeting services in a way that preserves and maintains students’ sense of hope for help and healing,” O’Brien said.
Lucero said that the No. 1 priority for the university should be an “expansion” of mental health resources on campus.
“I think expansion should be the No. 1 priority — expansion of funding, expansion of services, expansion of counselors,” Lucero said. “I think that while many of us are aware of some of the mental health resources, [we must] expand more information and make our mental health services more equitable and more accessible.”
Veksler then presented another survey question, asking panelists what they thought the most underused resources for mental health at UCSB are and how they can be shared with the student body. Olowude highlighted the Alcohol & Drug Program at UCSB and its student services in response.
“They are well utilized, but I know they would welcome the opportunity to serve and help even more students,” he said. “They offer free and confidential services, and they typically deal with students who are dealing with issues related to substance abuse or students who have questions or want to refer a friend struggling with substance abuse. There’s no expectation of long-term therapy, as it can be short-term intervention [as well], and it’s also a good option for family and significant others.”
Conway said that students don’t often realize the interplay of all of the mental health services at UCSB and how students in need can have an ecosystem of support from the university.
“Many of the support services and resources really work together as a team, and one individual student can have a team of support from the institution, whether that’s academic advising or accommodations through the disabled students program or a C.A.R.E. advocate or a support group through C.A.P.S.,” Conway said.
Conway also emphasized the role of identity and cultural-based resource centers on campus in impacting the mental health of students and their sense of belonging at UCSB.
“Our identity and cultural-based resource centers can play a huge role in mitigating the impact of mental health for student belonging or student engagement and leadership,” she said.
“Whether that’s student organizations and other involvement that help decrease feelings of isolation, homesickness — things that students often feel that they’re struggling alone with — there are other lower-level interventions and community engagement that can really help mitigate mental health before it rises to the level of individualized treatment,” Conway continued.
Cohen discussed the student-led side of mental health resources, spotlighting the A.S. Commission on Student Well-Being and the A.S. Public and Mental Health Commission.
“[The Public and Mental Health Commission] works specifically to provide extra resources for students like mental health first-aid training, meditation and yoga workshops, movie nights, care packages and they hold self-care workshops,” Cohen said.
The panelists also acknowledged and contextualized the impact of COVID-19 on mental health services on campus in response to a student question.
“I think COVID-19 has affected every single aspect of mental health services and mental health on our campuses,” Olowude said.
From losing about five clinicians in C.A.P.S. to the lag in availability of services in response to COVID-19, Olowude said that there was “not one aspect of mental health that COVID-19 hasn’t touched.”
“Fatigue wasn’t just a word,” he said. “It was an actual experience and all those things affected how we are and how we continue to move through these times.”
Lucero remarked that COVID-19 also affected communication from the university to the student body in offering these services up in the first place.
“My job is to help inform the student body on their rights, but it’s so hard to reach [the] 25,000 plus bodies on our campus, and even less possible for us to really help thousands of students out at once,” Lucero said.
Veksler closed the discussion portion of the town hall with the final question, asking how to make mental health a more regular part of everyday discussions and how to make others feel more welcomed to discuss it.
Lucero said that in order to make mental health a more candid discussion topic, people must become more aware of how they actually express their mental health to those around them.
“As a student and as a student leader, I think that we can never not talk about mental health in our day-to-day lives,” they said. “We learn about these terms, we learn about these concepts, but it’s hard to take that back home sometimes.”
“We have to get to a point where we applaud people for seeking help,” Olowude said. “Mental health days [need to be] seen as equally important as a sick day.”