RUSA teams up with Big Ten Universities to create Mental Health Awareness campaign

Thirty-six percent of college students see the mental health stigma as a barrier to accessing resources and 24 percent say a lack of information creates a roadblock.

In response to numbers like these, Matt Panconi and other student government presidents from colleges across the U.S. convened on Capitol Hill last spring to talk about mental health stigma on college campuses.

This semester, the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) is taking action by teaming up with other Big Ten Universities to establish a Mental Health Awareness campaign beginning on Oct. 19.

The campaign involves the creation of a national task force comprised of one student body representative from each Big Ten university.

The task force is in the process of creating a mental health awareness video, a Facebook page with resources and various social media initiatives. Each school's student body president is appearing in the video, and each school attempted to get a recognizable figure to appear in the video.

“We realized after talking that a lot of our universities have the same issues when it comes to dealing with mental health,” said Panconi, president of RUSA. “In order to start tackling this issue, we need to bring attention to mental health.”

Because students experiencing mental health issues often feel isolated, the campaign is sending the message "U Are Not Alone."

"U is standing for universities," said Panconi, a Rutgers Business School senior. "One in four college students are suffering from some sort of mental illness. We want to let everyone know that you're not alone. All of our universities have resources to help you."

The creation of this campaign can be traced back to last spring when Panconi travelled to Washington D.C. for the Association of Big Ten Students Conference. He attended a mental health awareness workshop with other Big Ten student assembly presidents.

Months later, Panconi drew up a bill with the Ohio State Student Government president, Abby Grossman, to form the Mental Health Awareness campaign for the national Association of Students. The bill passed over the summer by unanimous consent.

“This is the first bill of its kind for the Association of Big Ten Students,” said Panconi. “Usually, (the association) passes resolutions to support causes. This is the first action bill that all Big Ten student governments are actively working on together.”

Aside from Big Ten initiatives, this summer RUSA created a mental health ad hoc committee at Rutgers, which will collaborate with other schools, create a promotional video specifically for Rutgers students, release a mental health survey and hold a town hall meeting about mental health.

Liz Kantor, head of the committee, said they are primarily focusing on releasing the campus-wide survey by November. 

"(The survey) will assess the mental health stigma at Rutgers, how aware of services are students and whether students had good or bad experiences with CAPS," said Kantor, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "We want to get a picture of the problems with mental health at Rutgers so we can target those more effectively."

In order to get a more targeted overview, the committee will also reach out to an array of student groups, such as sexual assault survivors, students of color and LGBTQ students, to see how mental health is impacting their lives. 

Although all colleges have mental health stigmas, Rutgers Counseling, ADAP and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) was criticized last spring for its long patient waiting period and inability to help students.

At a RUSA Town Hall Meeting in March, President Robert L. Barchi said CAPS is merely an emergency service.

CAPS has "seen an enormous increase in the amount of students requiring its services" and the small staff is not adequately able to handle 66,000 students. At the meeting, Barchi said the University was hiring more staff and trying to improve the system.

“We are working to add to the number of visits that an individual can have within the system,” he said. “But it seems like a never ending race on a treadmill to keep up.”

Kantor has spoken with about 10 students about their personal experiences with CAPS.

One issue she hears often is that CAPS only provides short-term mental health care to students, not long-term care. For any services exceeding a semester's worth of time, CAPS must send the student to an off-campus resource.

This causes problems for students who do not have health insurance to cover these services or are uneasy about disclosing their mental health problems with parents or guardians. 

"Some students don't feel they can talk about mental health with their parents," Kantor said. "I think (long-term care) is something we can work on."

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