Opinion | The mental health initiative at Pitt can’t end with the pandemic

By Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Staff Columnist

If there were any silver linings during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the attention it brought to the importance of mental health, especially within the United States. 

I don’t personally know any student at Pitt whose mental health went unscathed during the pandemic. Depression, anxiety and ADHD all seemed to be rampant as students’ days were spent in their housing, where days bled together as the virus persisted. During this period, students found themselves struggling with their mental health issues with only one Pitt resource to turn to—the University Counseling Center

The World Health Organization found the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. Mental health issues were especially acute for college students. As the severity of the pandemic has shrunk within the United States, will mental health continue to be a subject of concern on college campuses?

Over the course of the pandemic, the UCC became notorious for providing students seeking mental health assistance with bad experiences. Whether it was excessive time waiting for an email response, filling out complex paperwork, or only being offered “short-term” individual counseling, my peers seemed to have no shortage of bad experiences. 

These instances follow a nationwide pattern of university mental health facilities struggling to handle the onslaught of mental health issues that the pandemic produced. Pitt’s Counseling Center received criticism for years before implementing changes that would improve the Center. 

In 2016, an online petition initiated by a Pitt student gained popularity, condemning the Center for its lack of resources. In the same year, the Student Government Board wrote an open letter which addressed the initiative to grow the number of full-time counselors from 12 to 20. These complaints, combined with the aftermath of the pandemic, led the University Counseling Center to implement programs that have improved students’ experiences. 

Janine Fisher, a Student Affairs spokesperson, noted that since 2019 the Counseling Center has vastly improved with the introduction of Dr. Jay Darr as the UCC director. 

As a result of the 2016 petition, Fisher said the Center currently offers 27 senior staff clinicians and 12 graduate level trainees to support students and reduce the exaggerated wait times students have complained about for years, which was among the complaints cited on the 2016 petition.

Despite the issues that have both directly affected student health and the reputation of the UCC, Fischer said Darr has worked closely with the UCC staff to streamline processes and eliminate the wait list that had existed prior. 

“Through enhanced services and streamlined processes, there is no wait for services at the UCC today,” Fisher said. 

According to Fisher, the inclusion of such new resources make it easier for each student to receive a personalized care plan. Fisher said students are able to utilize a combination of services, which include coordination of care through the Care Team to receive the support they need. If needed, students may be referred to specialists outside of the UCC to continue care.

From conversations with friends who’ve visited the Center, many felt the clinicians were insensitive to ethnic and racial backgrounds, with some of my peers recalling feelings of apprehension when interacting with their counselor. 

One friend stated, “The environment was fine in the beginning, but once race and ethnicity were brought into it, it made things uncomfortable for me and stressful.” They felt that the counselor asked questions that uncomfortably breached personal boundaries.

But the Center has emphasized diversity since 2016 through the implementation of the UCC diversity plan. Fisher said the results of the plan have included 55% of new hires identifying as Black, Indigenous, or as a person of color.

Alongside criticism on diversity, the Center also received complaints about emergency responses being handled by police. I’ve had discussions where students stated that the inclusion of police in mental health crises led to an aggravation of the situation rather than a solution based on their experiences.

In response to these concerns, the University implemented the HEART Program, according to Fisher.

The HEART program is a new collaborative initiative between University Counseling Center and the Pitt Police,” Fisher said. “This program provides an immediate co-response by mental health professionals and police to students in distress, to further the mission of meeting students where they are.”

All of these new programs provide a necessary space for college students who want to improve their mental health, but many students feel that these new additions do nothing to address the bad experiences they had.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous, tried to contact the Center for a year to receive ADHD consultation during the pandemic and said, “It’s great that these new programs are being implemented, but for those who experienced mental health issues during the pandemic it’s too late. The damage is done.”

Director Darr and the staff at the UCC implemented the new mental health programs to the best of their ability, but numerous friends of mine have shared their difficult experiences with the UCC from 2020 when help was most needed. They continue to carry those memories and emotional burdens with them to this day.

As the pandemic gradually fades from the forefront of our minds as cases slow and COVID-19 dominates less of the news, will the mental well-being of Pitt’s students do so too? 

Already, I’ve witnessed the need for a mental health break being denied in the classroom as professors crack down on deadlines. While it became a social norm to discuss mental issues during the pandemic, in recent conversations I’ve had it seems like such discussion is sliding back into taboo. It seems the progress made in the discussion on mental health during the pandemic is reversing. 

While Pitt has made more plans for future improvement through a new wellness building, I still question the value of approaches like these. The building advertises “a holistic approach” to mental well-being, but I fear this flashy addition of meditation spots and running tracks will just be another way to avoid improving the services that already exist and continue to place the responsibility of mental health back onto the shoulders of students. 

The discussion of mental health on college campuses cannot be exclusive to the pandemic. College students are still in need of mental health support and forever will be. If Pitt truly wants to create a space where mental health is taken seriously, then it must continue to take the same enthusiasm it carried for improving services in the UCC during the pandemic and apply it to all parts of campus life forevermore. 

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].