‘People are just being left in the cracks’: Activists organize mental health advocacy initiative to push for better resources

| Senior News Editor

After witnessing the exacerbation of mental health issues for many students during the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of student organizations and individual activists have created an advocacy group for mental health-related issues on campus.

With Student Union serving as the facilitator, representatives from Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling, Active Minds, Peer Health Educators and other organizations have spent the past few months gathering stories from students who say they have been let down by Washington University’s mental health services and are outlining a path towards improvement.

According to Uncle Joe’s counselor and advocacy group member junior Emily Angstreich, many members of the group felt frustrated with how administrators often paid lip service to the importance of mental health services without actually making efforts to improve them.

“On campus there’s been a large and growing discontentment with the way that mental health services are given,” Angstreich said. “There’s a shortage of therapists, wait times can be a minimum of three weeks and are usually longer. It’s hard to get appointments…It’s also just hard for students to find the courage sometimes to ask for help, and then it can be really disheartening for them to make that first call to Habif, and then instead of hearing, ‘We’re here. We want to help you,’ [they hear] ‘Oh, we’ll make an appointment a month from now.’”

The group’s main demands include hiring more staff at Habif Health and Wellness Center, WashU Cares and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, increasing the diversity of counseling staff, centralizing the University’s health and wellness resources and removing WUPD from all mental health calls.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

These demands were informed by the realities of students who had negative experiences seeking counseling at the University. Many of these experiences have also been posted anonymously on the Instagram account @stillwaiting_washu in order to increase awareness of the need for better mental health resources.

“Some of the stories that we’re seeing on @stillwaiting_washu talked about students having experiences with certain counselors that weren’t necessarily positive,” sophomore Nicole Leers, SU health and wellness committee chair and advocacy group member, said. “So we’re looking into how we can mitigate those, and if we can create some sort of feedback system so that they’re able to make those changes.”

In addition to hiring more staff to reduce wait times, Angstreich emphasized the importance of creating a safe environment for people of different races, sexualities and gender identities.

“The majority of our therapists are white women, and so there are not a lot of places for people of color to go if they want someone who understands their own racial identity,” Angstreich said. “Same with students who are trans or even just in the community who are looking for someone that understands what they’re [going] through.”

Another anonymous student from @stillwaiting_washu described feeling “overwhelmed” when multiple WUPD officers showed up in their room in response to a panic attack. Due to concerns that students of color often feel unsafe around WUPD officers, the advocacy group has joined many other student activist groups on campus in calling for WUPD to end its involvement in mental health calls. Angstreich, who is looking into this issue as part of the Gephardt Center’s Civic Scholars Program, outlined a few potential alternatives to WUPD.

“Ultimately, a social worker could do that job in a much more effective way,” Angstreich said. “One idea is that hypothetically, students from the Brown School could enroll in a practicum and they could actually be doing that work, since that is a really good experience…Another idea I know was proposed was adding money to the WUPD budget, specifically to hire social workers who can address mental health crises…However, because that’s still tied to WUPD, it might not be a good idea.”

According to SU Senate Speaker and advocacy group member junior Gaby Smith, the last few months have been more of a planning phase for the group, but this semester she hopes to ramp up efforts to pressure administrators to take action.

“We’re hoping to consolidate them [stories from @stillwaiting_washu], summarize some key scenes and findings and present them to the administration,” Smith said. “I think we’ve seen, at least in my time in Student Union, quite a few administrators seem to be ideologically committed to mental health and have acknowledged that it needs to be a priority on campus. I think the main goal of this collective advocacy initiative is to actually ensure that we see tangible action to back up this commitment to mental health.”

Although Smith’s presentation to administrators has yet to take place, Leers and other representatives from the advocacy group have spoken to the Office of Student Affairs about some short term solutions to the mental health crisis caused by COVID-19.

“As of now, we are trying to get Student Affairs and some of the academic deans to allocate some of their funding to counselors for Habif,” Leers said. “We are also trying to find some more short-term resources for students, because in the big picture we want a lot more counselors…and are hoping eventually for a health and wellness building, but at the same time there has to be some kind of short-term supplement as well. We’ve been seeing everything getting pushed down the line and people are just being left in the cracks.”

As a counselor for Uncle Joe’s, Angstreich expressed frustration with how her job often requires her to refer students to certain resources, which she knows have serious problems.

“We have to always give caveats like, ‘Hey, Habif will give you X amount of free sessions. However, it will take you three weeks for your first appointment, and the initial triage might be really harsh and clinical and not feel very comforting,’” Angstreich said. “We have to be the ones to say, ‘Here’s what’s available, but it’s not a great situation. We can offer you this resource, but it could be a lot better.’”

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