Cal Poly mental health officials are facing a surge in demand for their services, an occurrence that is mirrored in counseling centers across the nation. These services range from individual therapy sessions and skill-based workshops at the counseling center to classroom accommodations and support programs at the Disability Resource Center (DRC).
For students with pre-existing or developing mental health issues, reducing the stigma against mental health issues on college campuses has made students more comfortable talking about their experiences and accessing mental health resources.
According to a survey of 95,761 students across the country conducted by the American College Health Association, 17 percent of students experience anxiety and 13.9 percent of students are diagnosed with depression.
Cal Poly’s Assistant Director of Community Prevention & Intervention Services Dr. Hannah Roberts conducts a similar annual survey on campus called the Healthy Minds survey, which takes a representative sample of Cal Poly students and provides an analysis of mental health on campus.
“It paints a pretty similar picture to what we’re seeing at counseling centers across the nation, having increased levels of distress and definitely increased severity of stress,” Roberts said.
While students can find psychological support by visiting the counseling center, they may also need to find academic support at the DRC for help in the classroom.
A decade ago, the DRC serviced 425 students. During the 2015-16 academic school year, the DRC serviced 800-850 students, and that number grows every year.
Today, 900 of the 21,000 students on campus seek help for physical disabilities, temporary injuries, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, visual or hearing impairments, autism spectrum disorders and traumatic or acquired brain injuries.
There are only three full-time employees and one intern at the DRC to handle the nearly 900 students who seek help for their disabilities.
Sixty percent of those students fall under the Learning Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder category, 20 percent receive support for psycho-emotional disorders and 20 percent receive support for physical and sensory impairments.
It’s more than just a label
Students with mental health issues may have a harder time attending and participating in class, which may also affect their classroom performance. The DRC seeks to alleviate that stress by granting accommodations such as note-taking help, postponed due dates and excused absences.
However, because of the stigma against mental health, students, faculty and staff may not always be supportive of the extra help.
“Some students [and some staff and faculty] on campus don’t understand the needs of a person with a disability and are not supportive of those needs,” DRC Access Specialist Jennifer Allen-Barker said. “Part of our role is to reach out to those persons and give them an explanation of what the needs are in terms of leveling the playing field, giving equal access to the education process and what their role and responsibility is in helping meet those needs.”
If a student has a mental health issue, a diagnosis by a trained physician will grant them accommodations with the DRC. Students can bring medical documentation about their diagnosis and receive accommodations in the form of extended time on exams or prolonged due dates for assignments.
It takes a village
Allen-Barker is one of the three full-time employees at the DRC. She handles 275 students alone.
“All of us are feeling the burden more than we normally would,” Allen-Barker said. “I estimate that I’ve already processed and enrolled almost 80 students since the end of June.”
After facing a combination of medical issues and the stress of college, art and design senior Jeff Jensen decided to seek help from the health and counseling center on campus.
“I tried to go and get help from the health center even before school had started last year. [The health center] sounded like they were there for me and give me support, but I got an appointment, they gave me Prozac and said ‘okay, we’ll check you up in a month’,” Jensen said.
For someone with mental health issues who made the difficult decision to seek help, that sent a contradictory message. Though Jensen’s experience is an extreme example, there are more and more students experiencing some sort of mental health distress during college.
While the number of students seeking support at the DRC will statistically increase as Cal Poly pushes to increase its student population, that doesn’t mean it is the DRC’s responsibility to tackle the issue of mental health alone.
“It’s important for the campus to know that we’re here to assist and collaborate with any faculty or staff or program or department on campus,” Allen-Barker said. “The best way we can support our student clients is to make sure that all of those entities — our campus colleagues — also know how to support the student, so that we can all share that responsibility.”
On a much larger scale, San Luis Obispo receives minimal federal funding and grants for mental health resources due to its isolated location and rural background, making it decentralized and lacking in community resources. However, Cal Poly counseling services still strives to provide treatment and services for as many students as possible.
The DRC also provides three support programs: the peer mentor program, the Connections program and the Access Allies program.
The peer mentor program is designed to pair a student with a mentor who volunteers their time to give the student advice about using the DRC and other campus programs. Students may find this especially useful because it provides guidance and mentorship from someone with similar mental health issues.
Connections program is privately funded and available to every student on campus. It aims to provide a safe and fun environment for fostering relationships. High interest activities such as surfing lessons, field trips to Disneyland and visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium are tailored for students who might be shy or who are at risk for isolation because they have difficulty building relationships with other people.
The third program DRC provides is called Access Allies. It allows students to volunteer their time for mental health related projects and issues, patterned after Pride for the LGBTQIA community. Volunteers can help raise awareness for mental health and advocate disabilities as an aspect of cultural diversity.
Access Allies can also be helpful in representing the DRC at events across campus, especially given the fact that their office is currently understaffed.
How you can help
In addition to all the services on campus that support students with mental health issues, there is one resource that certainly isn’t lacking: support from family and friends.
Though there might be instances of students slipping through the cracks of an overworked and underfunded system, bystander intervention and behavior still allow friends and classmates of students with mental health issues to utilize the resources on campus to their full potential.
One resource that isn’t as obvious as the other services offered on campus but is still utilized by many students is support from friends.
“We’ll have friends waiting in the waiting room for someone, showing someone where to go. We’ll have friends calling on someone’s behalf and handing the phone off to them, those kinds of things,” Roberts said. “We really see our students pull through and support one another in a really beautiful way.”
Jensen now sees a counselor in the area off campus and ultimately decided to take the quarter off. Students in similar situations can opt to take a break from the stress, come back with a different mindset and get what they need to get out of the college experience.
“I have a more clear view now that I’m removed from the stress and removed from the situation,” Jensen said. “In the near future I can come back and approach it in a different way and hopefully get what I need to get out of the college experience.”