RUSA task force addresses problems with mental health treatment at Rutgers
The Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) brought focus to mental health issues on Thursday by curating a comprehensive list of suggestions to better serve students seeking help.
The student-run town hall meeting was held at the Student Activities Center on the College Avenue campus. It was designed to touch on a variety of student-related affairs and hold legislative polls for pending student ballots.
This weekly meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. and can run for two hours. Topics of discussion range from improving commuter student experience to sexual assault prevention.
At Thursday’s meeting, the Mental Health Task Force, a culmination of students looking to study the effects of mental health, shared ideas.
With help from its “What’s on Your Mind?” survey as well as communication with other Big Ten schools, the group designs ideas for reforming mental health treatment at Rutgers. It works to improve both Rutgers Health Services and its affiliates, said Zachary Sinkiewicz, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and chair of the Mental Health Task Force.
Some of the recommendations involved embedding counselors throughout campus in order to increase their availability and recruiting more bilingual counselors to better service international students, Sinkiewicz said. Both ideas aim to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it easily accessible to students.
Additionally, the group looks to establish a set of concrete policies through the University that allow students to address any mental health issues before worrying about schoolwork, he said. By initiating a makeup policy the University reassures students that mental health is always the first priority.
“One of the fundamental problems with CAPS (Center for Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program and Psychiatric Services) and other organizations alike is that they focus on this short-term ‘shock therapy’ that looks to address the problem quickly. Most programs consist of six sessions and then they charge students after that's exceeded or send them elsewhere for additional help,” Sinkiewicz said.
Contrastingly, Annmarie Wacha-Montes, assistant director for community based services of CAPS, said the services they offer are free of charge and that there is no session limit for counseling.
"If a student connects to a psychiatrist for medication management, the appointments will be billed through the student’s insurance," Wacha-Montes said in an email.
Caroline Ross, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and Mental Health Task Force member, said an element that brought her to Rutgers was the psychiatric and mental health services the school provided.
“Eating disorders persisted throughout my high school years. Without these services present my parents and I didn’t feel comfortable committing to a school,” she said.
Ross said that when she experienced the Rutgers’ mental health services, they were not as helpful as she would have liked them to be. It was a very generic form of treatment that did not focus on treating the root cause of the issue.
“When I heard about the Mental Health Taskforce as a part of RUSA I knew I had to help,” she said.
Ideas for the Task Force are created in part by triangulation with other schools’ ideas for the system, Ross said.
“As Big Ten liaison I work with all 14 schools and universities, yes there’s 14 not 10, and recently talked with delegations from other schools at the Ohio State Big Ten conference to see what programs they were implementing,” she said.
Some of the problems surrounding CAPS are a lack of diversity among counselors. Many of the professionals willing to treat you seem to have aged out of the system and are not able to treat student for current issues, Ross said.
“It’s much easier to feel comfortable and cultivate a relationship with a counselor if you can see some of yourself in them. If you seek treatment from someone like yourself, it becomes easier to reach out and ask for help," she said.
Making these services more accessible to students helps reduce the stigma that follows mental health issues, Ross said.
Hiring diverse staff has been a primary strategic goal for CAPS over the past several years, Wacha-Montes said, adding that CAPS staff members seek continuous training and education to increase self-awareness to respond to implicit and systemic biases.
Ross said, based on her own experiences, that on-campus treatment at Rutgers needs improvement.
“Since my experience with CAPS, I travel off campus to see my doctors because I cannot rely on the services here,” Ross said. “Hopefully these suggestions help other students find comfort in the services we provide here instead of seeking out additional help.”
Sudents who are going through difficult times should get involved with organizations, Ross said.
“Even when I am having a bad day I know there is something I can do for RUSA and it makes me feel like I belong,” she said.
At the end of the presentation, the group took questions from other student organization representatives and anyone else that cared to comment on the subject. At the end of the night, the individual organizations held their separate board meetings and the meeting was adjourned.
“I thought the presentation was great. We commissioned the report right after I got elected and it became the first real task force we created. Mental health is a pressing issue on campus, students are dealing with depression and anxiety but don’t have the resources to address those issues,” said Justin Schulberg, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and president of the RUSA Executive Board.
All the suggestions presented are achievable and can be done in reasonable time, Schulberg said. A lot of the suggestions are already in place at other schools, so RUSA is taking small steps toward improving the reality of mental health on campus.
Christie Schweighardt, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior and RUSA chief of staff, was a chair for the last task force. She said it is important to see a committee research and find out what the climate is like on campus to provide a basis for what we can strive for.
“The counselors at CAPS are ready to make change,” Schweighardt said. "They have a lot of great plans and have done great things in the last two years to listen to students and make the system better for everyone.”
Wacha-Montes said that CAPS offers culturally informed treatments that are based on evidence that helps reduce concerns and problems.
"The treatment focuses on a comprehensive understanding of the why the issues are present and ways they can be managed," she said. "These treatments have been found through research and clinical trials to be significantly effective and helpful."
Editor's Note: This article was updated to include information from Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program and Other Psychiatric Services.
Christian Zapata is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.