1st ever Mental Health Town Hall brings together speakers from all sectors of the University
The Rutgers University Student Assembly’s (RUSA)
“Mental health is something that’s important to us as students and general citizens of the world,” said Christie Schweighardt, RUSA vice president and a School of Arts and Sciences junior, as she began the Town Hall.
This year, RUSA started the first Health and Wellness Committee, Schweighardt said. The organization believes health and wellness should be something they are prioritizing, and mental health is a big part of that.
The current chairwoman of the Health and Wellness Committee, a senior in the School of Social Work, Ini Ross, served as moderator during the discussion.
“I think it’s essential that we start this conversation on campus,” Ross said. "Because we cannot be a diverse as well as inclusive campus without the talk about mental health.”
She also said that this is the first time RUSA has held this event.
The five panelists included Jill Richards, director of Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), and Antonio Morales, a community based counselor for CAPS.
There were also three members of the student population present on the panel — Sydney Glass, a School of Arts and Sciences senior who has worked as a core coordinator of the Scarlet Listeners program, which is a peer counseling crisis and referral hotline on campus, and sisters Artemis and Sophia Mazzini, organizers of the "Into the Light" 5k for mental health awareness at Rutgers.
The panelists discussed resources available to students on campus seeking mental health care, as well as new initiatives CAPS is working on to reach more of the student population.
Richards began by addressing the rising demand for services from CAPS on campus.
“Last year we had over 30,000 visits to CAPS and had more than 4,000 students come to see us, and that represents an increase over the previous years,” she said.
Since CAPS began offering services as a unified organization in 2008, Richards said there has been an increase in demand every year.
Richards attributed this to a decrease in stigma surrounding mental health — students are more willing and able to seek services than they were in the past, she said. Additionally, the quality of services is better, and centers are improving at reaching out to different cultural groups on campus.
“I have a real commitment to working with students of color, because I understand and recognize that culturally speaking, we don’t seek mental health in the way that other people might,” she said.
When making sure that everyone has fair access to mental health services, Morales said it is necessary to consider the wide array of upbringings and cultural backgrounds that students bring with them to campus.
“Not everybody grows up in a place where they have privilege or access to services or resources,” he said.
To communicate with students through the different cultural centers on campus, Morales has worked with CAPS to run programs such as self-development groups for men of color.
“We’re really committed at CAPS to creating a whole menu of options for students, because not everybody needs to talk to a professional or needs formal treatment,” Richards said.
CAPS also offers weekly drop-in hours on several different locations on campus, as well as Mindfulness Meditation programs to teach stress-management tactics. CAPS runs 25-30 different programs every week, ranging from treatment to preventative strategies, Richards said.
Glass said the effectiveness of peer counseling as an alternative to professional services for students who are reluctant to seek help and encouraged CAPS to consider organizing student-run support groups on campus.
“A lot of people who call our hotline are people who are not ready to see a professional. A group of peers, people who are going through the same thing, might be a good stepping stone into professional help,” she said.
Artemis Mazzini, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, urged the audience to be open about their struggles with mental illness.
“The more you talk about it, the more other people will feel comfortable talking about it too,” she said.
In addition to organizing "Into the Light," which benefitted the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, she is working with her sister Sophia Mazzini, a sophomore in the Rutgers Business School, to start a foundation in memory of their father who recently passed away from suicide.
Following the moderated discussion, the panelists answered several questions from members of the audience.
“It’s the beginning of a long journey of these conversations,” Ross said. “Conversations that are necessary for us to truly become a great university because to have a cohesive student body, we need to truly be together and work together.”
Following the Mental Health Town Hall discussion, RUSA also passed a resolution to support the Cupanion reusable bottle initiative. Dan Chulak, the Student Affairs Committee chairman and School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior, presented the legislation along with Christiana Dalton, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.
“Instead of distributing drinks in paper cups with plastic lids and straws, Rutgers Dining Services transitioned last spring toward stainless steel Cupanion brand bottles,” Chulak said to the assembly.
RUSA’s previous University Affairs chairman had the idea last year, Chulak said, and the Dining Hall Committee worked with Dining Services to implement the idea.
The idea is for every student with a meal plan to receive a Cupanion bottle, Chulak said, and the cost to replace a lost bottle is $8.
Approximately 11,000 reusable bottles were distributed in the Spring 2017 semester, according to the text of the legislation, and 13,000 bottles will be distributed this semester.
The resolution allocates $2,000 from the miscellaneous project line to support the Cupanion reusable bottle initiative, Chulak said.
Last year, the program diverted an estimated 370,000 cups, lids and straws away from landfills, which resulted in a savings of approximately $44,000, Dalton said.
“The primary focus is the sustainability aspect,” she said. “This is doing a lot for the impact that Rutgers has on the environment.”
Christina Gaudino is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in public policy. She is a staff writer for The Daily Targum.