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Editorial Board: Reworking and refinancing mental health resources at Stanford

From laundry to condoms, Stanford students have impressive access to a range of residential resources for free or at subsidized costs. A small army of professionals — academic directors, residence deans, program associates, dining staff and more — helps coordinate the dozens of programs geared towards students’ well-being, mental health and happiness. These resources are so pervasive, they’re often taken for granted. For most students, at most times, the system is working.

Partly because the system works for many, there is a campus ideal: that we are “geniuses who bathe in the sun, rip shots while coding… roll out of bed late and crush the McKinsey interview.” Freshmen who inexplicably take 22 units and seniors with job offers proudly brag about how they have sacrificed their bodies and sanities for “achievement.”

In certain instances, however, the most challenging and dangerous cases fall through the cracks. When our environment’s unrelenting demand for success pushes students to compromise their mental health, the university’s considerable support system is too often caught off guard. When suicide happens at Stanford, every cog in this omnipresent network — coaches, administrators, advisors, teaching staff, dorm staff and friends — feels like it is somehow to blame.

Stanford is in such a position now, with two suicides on campus in the past nine months. Those with long memories will remember a similar unacknowledged period of campus mourning three years ago, when silent, downcast gazes replaced the regular buzz of Suites dining.

In times like these, access to private, confidential advice is more critical than ever. But, for the purposes of most students, there are only three confidential resources on campus: the Bridge, the Office of Religious Life and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). If a scared, stigmatized student is looking for help but feels he will be judged by his peers, there aren’t that many places to turn.

Hence the overwhelming demand for psychological services. Preliminary results of the ASSU’s ongoing mental health survey indicate that about 80 percent of student respondents said they or their peers would benefit from counseling for stress, academic pressures, depression and anxiety. Over 60 percent reported that they or a friend had used CAPS and about three quarters reported the same about the dormitory-based Peer Health Educators (PHEs).

Yet in spite of the wide and continued use of CAPS, only 42 percent of those undergraduates who had used CAPS were satisfied with the number of appointments they received. A dismal 30 percent were satisfied with the wait time between appointments. Clearly, there is a demand for counseling that is not fully being met.

Our criticism of the University’s inability to keep up with mental health resource demand is not meant to be a criticism of the integral role that CAPS currently plays on campus: It remains an accessible, 24-hour resource that has helped thousands of Stanford students. The existing demand for CAPS is a testament to how important of a role CAPS plays in the Stanford community. At the same time, it remains true that Stanford’s mental health infrastructure can no longer fully meet demand. CAPS Director Ronald Albucher has said as much, requesting more money from the University Budget Committee to hire more staff.

CAPS’ budget falls within Vaden’s, and that within Student Affairs’.  In 2014-15, Vaden shared Student Affairs’ $64.3 million budget with institutions such as the Career Development Center, Office of Alcohol Policy and Education and the Haas Center for Public Service. The total budget for these various programs — all of them integral to student well-being — should be viewed in light of the University’s other expenses, such as the nearly third of a billion dollars we spend on maintaining our facilities and land each year.

Put simply: If the University can fundraise $928.5 million for various other important causes, surely they can also make students’ mental health one of those causes.

Increased funding is a necessary but insufficient condition. Numerous undergraduate Senate campaigns have made improving CAPS a campaign talking point. But money can’t solve all of the obstacles hindering people from getting care.

The problems are both large and small. Those whom CAPS have connected with long-term care need to balance their appointments with class schedules and practical realities. Assistance may require hours of commuting per week, a major deterrent to receiving help and yet another source of stigma.

Stanford must also build a broader culture of self-care, continuing to emphasize student wellness and de-stigmatize failure. In this regard, Stanford has been creative and decisive, rapidly expanding its academic course offerings in order to integrate wellness into everyday life. Events like Stanford, I Screwed Up! are worthy additions to a busy events calendar. Our first line of defense — dorm residential staff — can also be better equipped to head off and handle mental health crises. Formalizing an information sharing system with residence deans would facilitate regular updates on ongoing cases and provide specific guidance in case of crisis.

However, this Board is concerned about rumored proposals to weaken the residential Peer Health Educator (PHE) program in favor of health-trained RAs. While the move would allay concerns over the comparatively low-paid PHEs, we can’t forget that PHEs undergo specialized training especially relevant to sensitive, judgment-oriented mental health decisions. By design, PHEs prioritize wellness while RAs are trained with an eye on risk management; many would argue that Stanford needs more of the former and less of the latter. Any University commitment to improving mental health should also commit to strengthening, financially and otherwise, our PHEs; shrinking the program only puts a bigger burden on the overloaded CAPS system.

Finally, a reinvigorated and well-staffed CAPS must take on a prominent role in the life of the school. Too often, a CAPS presence sits silent on the periphery of major events or as a token phone number after a traumatic announcement. If Stanford is to truly become proactive on wellness, the fact that CAPS and mental health professionals in general have no public presence on campus needs to change.

Until we build a culture where mental health is urgently and openly discussed — and we are well on our way — the demand for CAPS will only grow. Students, accustomed to some of the best student services in the world, expect better from what is supposed to be the University’s last line of defense. For now, Stanford’s only option is to meaningfully raise the budget of the entire mental health resource system in order to meet demand. We are hopeful that they will.

Contact the Editorial Board at opinions@stanforddaily.com. 

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