Mental health issues front and center at University Health Services

Blue student

Faculty, staff and students aren’t immune from anxiety and stress, but Berkeley’s University Health Services is working to get the word out about their services during Mental Health Awareness Month. (UC Berkeley photo by Elena Zhukova)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s clear that mental health encompasses a much larger canvas: 12 months and 24/7.

That is certainly true at UC Berkeley, where programs to help students, faculty and staff keep growing, even as the population needing that help keeps growing. For example, Berkeley’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), part of University Health Services (UHS), reports an 8 percent increase from the 2017-2018 academic year to date in students seeking support.

“On campus, May is a pretty intense month,” says Leslie Bell, an employee assistance counselor at University Health Services’ Be Well at Work – Employee Assistance program. “And that can lead to lots of stressful situations. But we have a very well-trained staff here, people who know the university culture. It’s comprehensive and terrific.”

“Faculty and staff on this campus have access to great mental health services. At the same time, not everyone who needs the help is reaching out for it,” she adds. “Treatment is available. And for those who seek it out, the help can improve lives.”

Services available for faculty and staff include free and confidential counseling and referrals at Employee Assistance, formerly known as CARE Services, and access to ongoing counseling through employees’ health insurance plans.

According to CAPS, the most common reasons that staff and faculty seek help there are work-related stress, relationship issues and anxiety and depression.

Leslie Bell, UHS

Leslie Bell, an employee counselor at UC Berkeley’s Be Well At Work program, says with all that is happening this time of year, mental health issues must not be ignored. (UC Berkeley photo by Melani King)

For students, the root causes of anxiety and stress include the academic rigor at a challenging institution, career worries and insecurity about housing, food or finances, says Dr. Guy Nicolette, assistant vice chancellor at UHS.

According to a recent study by a research team led by Richard Scheffler, a Berkeley professor of health economics and public policy, rates of anxiety disorder among students at Berkeley tripled between 2008 and 2016.

“I think everybody recognizes this is a national phenomenon — the rise of college students presenting some mental health distress,” Nicolette says. “Our challenge is to try to help every student with the resources we have.”

Nicolette breaks his team’s goals into a triad. It wants to meet students where they are, as best it can. It wants to invoke all the resources Berkeley has available. And it wants to see people earlier when they are in distress, because, he says, “better outcomes may happen faster.”

Much of the state of mental health on the campus, Nicolette says, has to do with basic needs — food, housing and tuition. Affordable housing, which is in short supply, can be particularly stressful. There are students who are homeless. And there are those who have a place to live, but who have other housing-related issues.

“With the cost of housing being what it is in Berkeley, students are likely to put more people in an area than would normally fit,” Nicolette says. “That can lead to problems. It’s a domino that knocks over other dominoes.”

A spring 2017 survey by the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) of Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students asked them about issues they found “traumatic or very difficult to handle.” Leading the way were academic issues at 56.4 percent and career-related issues at 34.9 percent.

“The stress of living in the Bay Area with the high cost of living and the political climate factors in,” Bell adds.

Tang Center

Tang Center is the home of University Health Services, which counts among its other duties helping staff, students and faculty deal with mental health issues. (UC Berkeley photo)

Nicolette says that although millennials are more forthright in talking about mental health issues, there is still a stigma to mental illness that keeps people from seeking help.

“It’s harder for people to talk about a diagnosis of depression than it is to talk about a diagnosis of a broken leg,” he says.

Nicolette is quick to point out that not all stress is a mental health issue.

“Some level of stress is normal; that’s been proven,” Nicolette says. “It’s part of being human and part of what motivates us. It’s when it crosses the line that problems arise. Unfortunately, being human, that line moves. Life is costly and stressful; that’s just human existence. But we have ways to help with that. We love seeing people bounce back and have the perseverance to do great things.”

UHS has been gradually increasing its resources for mental health in recent years, and there is no cost to students, regardless of their insurance, to begin short-term counseling at UHS. Student groups have enacted new student fees to provide more resources toward mental health, basic needs and campus climate issues five times since 2015 passing new student fees.

The Be Well at Work – Employee Assistance program offers faculty and staff no-cost short-term counseling, referral, elder care counseling, management consultations and workshops and training customized to departmental needs.

In addition to direct therapy and counseling sessions, CAPS offers a number of support groups for students. Some center around common concerns (social anxiety, relationships, transitions and moods) and others around common identity (race, gender and ethnicity).

Students can be referred into the groups by contacting CAPS. There is also drop-in “Let’s Talk” availability at many of the satellite locations on campus.