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This Suicide Prevention Week, UC Berkeley must do more

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SEPTEMBER 15, 2023

Content warning: Discussion of suicide and mental health

The epidemic of suicide claims tens of thousands of lives every year. This National Suicide Prevention Week, UC Berkeley must take concrete action to keep its students safe.

The nationwide mental health crisis is exceptionally severe among young people. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in 2021, 22% of teenagers seriously contemplated suicide. The numbers on depression are even higher, with 42% of high school students having endured severe and elongated periods of sadness and hopelessness.

These statistics are similarly concerning among college students. According to a recent Healthy Minds survey, a reported 15% of respondents have considered committing suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students, a much higher figure than the national average. 

Youth facing mental health concerns are often unlikely to receive support from professionals. Currently, more than half of minors with major depression do not receive clinical or psychological care. As millions prepare to enroll in college annually, universities should expect that many incoming students with mental health conditions have received no prior treatment.

Institutions of higher education should assume responsibility for filling this gap — however, our campus currently falls short. 

At UC Berkeley, the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, is chronically understaffed, leaving many students with mental health disabilities unable to access academic accommodations. Similarly, Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, estimates initial appointment wait times of multiple weeks. The majority of students cannot expect to schedule more than two counseling sessions in the course of a semester.

As a result of these extensive wait times, CAPS recommends that students seek therapy and psychiatric services from external providers in the community. These amenities, however, are often rendered inaccessible by high costs. On average, each session of psychotherapy is priced between $100 and $200. And because insurance providers are not required to provide mental health services, cost coverage is not always available. With students already responsible for paying tuition and other costs of living such as rent, groceries and meal plans, campus must recognize its role in protecting the well-being of students without creating an unmanageable financial burden.

While campus has resources available for students in immediate crisis, students should not have to wait for their mental health concerns to become life-threatening in order to receive institutional support. The phrase “suicide prevention” hinges on the availability of prevention mechanisms. 90% of individuals who commit suicide have an underlying mental health condition. Without sufficient resources to address these ailments, students are put at further risk of suicide.

In addition to offering limited sources of support on campus, UC Berkeley penalizes students for taking mental health leave. If students choose to temporarily withdraw from courses, they are forced to reapply without a guarantee of readmission. This policy disincentivizes students in distress from fully focusing on their mental and emotional well-being. 

The combination of inadequate psychological resources and the threat of enforced withdrawal poses a danger to UC Berkeley students. Students implored to keep pushing forward through severe mental health difficulties are at higher likelihood of experiencing suicidal ideation and attempting suicide. Despite numerous studies supporting this claim, campus continues to devalue the lives and livelihoods of its students.

UC Berkeley asserts that it prioritizes student health. If this is true, it is well past time for our administration to take action to prevent suicides among its students.

Campus should take direct steps to strengthen mental health resources. First and foremost, it should focus on expanding accessibility to therapy, psychiatric services and academic accommodations. Research indicates that therapy and medication are integral aspects of suicide prevention. With increased funding, staffing and training for CAPS and DSP, students will be more likely to acquire these forms of treatment.

Second, UC Berkeley students should not be penalized for taking time off from school in order to seek treatment for mental health conditions. Campus policies should be updated to allow students to take mental health leave without needing to completely withdraw and reapply. By doing so, campus would acknowledge that while academic excellence is a significant priority, the health of students always comes first.

Sunday marked the first day of National Suicide Prevention Week this year. As suicide rates continue to climb, this week is relevant now more than ever. It is critical that individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts can see light at the end of the tunnel. UC Berkeley should do everything in its power to provide students who are struggling with a sense of lasting hope.

Olivia Rhee is a UC Berkeley senior and the fall 2023 deputy opinion editor. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

SEPTEMBER 15, 2023