Beyond Therapy Dogs: Bringing the Needed Mental Health Services to Our Campus

You know how I could tell the lack of mental health services on college campuses was becoming a serious problem? It was when the memes about it started getting old. Twitter is swamped with jokes about how colleges utilizing therapy dogs to alleviate stress are not going to cure students’ depression or other dire mental health concerns that students may have. My favorite Tweet pokes fun at this issue and resonates this misuse of resources on a temporary solution a little too deeply. 

And there is truth to these tweets. When various on-campus organizations promote that they will be hosting service dogs at their events, it makes me think that they must be compensating for something—for the lack of constructive mental health services that should be offered to students. With a culture that has been actively encouraging having a healthy relationship with our minds and reaching out for professional help when necessary, you would think it would be easy to access the appropriate resources. 

Wrong. 

I reached out to someone who has continually struggled with our very own Counseling Center at UC Irvine: my housemate. She bravely took it upon herself to seek the help she deserves and in Fall Quarter, she got it! Woohoo! However, after four to five sessions of productive work, her counselor determined that my housemate no longer needed to meet with the counselor, without even asking my housemate if she was comfortable stopping the sessions. And because of the good person my housemate is, she figured this limited resource should go to someone else instead of prioritizing her own mental health. 

Winter Quarter rolled around and her anxiety kicked in again. When she got a call back from the Counseling Center, she was told she needed a valid reason to seek counseling again. Intimidated, she did not call the counselor back. 

Come Spring Quarter and she had more reasons to seek help. However, the Counseling Center referred her to off-campus services that may or may not accept her insurance. My housemate does not have a car, therefore in order to seek professional help, she will most likely have to Lyft or Uber to a service outside of Irvine. To her, the situation could be worse but is mainly disappointed that her circumstances are not considered “serious enough” to continue getting the help she needs on campus. 

Photo Courtesy of UCI Wellness, Health & Counseling Services

After hearing her story, there are several things to unpack about the way our school's counseling system works. First, what constitutes legitimate reasoning to seek counseling? According to the Counseling Center's most asked questions, they prioritize students with self-harm and/or thoughts of suicide, as they should be. However, it is problematic to assume that those who do not express pain in the form of self-harm do not have a real reason to seek on-campus services. Additionally, it may encourage people who are familiar with the process to fake self-harm or even begin self-harming in order to get into a session quicker. 

It also seems that requesting the gender of the counselor will result in a longer wait time. With more women seeking counseling than men, female therapists are constantly in demand. My housemate was told that being open to any gender would put her higher on the waitlist. Whether or not gender matters when seeking counseling is beyond the scope of this piece, but it does come down to having staff members that students feel comfortable opening up to. 

Finally, willing participants can book an appointment faster if they are open to meeting with an untrained graduate student and be filmed for educational purposes. This seems to be an option afforded to those who do not appear to have a serious enough issue to meet with an actual counselor. It is a low-risk option for those students who may be dealing with an “inconsequential” issue, but it certainly might not play out well for a student who is bottling up more emotions than they are willing to devolve. Quite frankly, it takes advantage of the most vulnerable students who are just looking for the help they deserve. 

Reflecting on the Counseling Center appointment booking process, it seems clear that what is most needed is more resources. Mental health services should be supported on a bigger scale than they are now. The fact that there is a waitlist for booking appointments is telling that the Counseling Center is a highly sought after resource and is not serving as many people as it should be. I understand that it is not entirely the center’s fault in that it has to turn away some students, but that does not make it okay for them to invalidate students’ reasons for seeking counseling or offering less-than-adequate services so they can get more students in faster. To help solve this problem, we as a student body should advocate for more professional staff and more funding to strengthen the existence of the current Counseling Center.

Don't get me wrong, the therapy dogs are cute, but mental health is more pressing than it has ever been before and more services are necessary.