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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Former ASUCD vice president, senator speak out on mental health strain in association

Former ASUCD vice president, Robyn Huey. (KATIE LIN / AGGIE)
Former ASUCD vice president, Robyn Huey. (KATIE LIN / AGGIE)

ASUCD to implement new mental health resources following resignations

It’s a rainy mid-afternoon in Davis when former ASUCD Vice President Robyn Huey walks into the Student Community Center. Her smile beams through as she holds open the door, ushering another student inside.

This image is starkly different from the Huey students saw 10 months ago, when the one-time leader of UC Davis’ student government resigned her post due to her struggle with depression.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one-in-four college students struggles with mental illness. While Huey doesn’t cite ASUCD as the cause of her depression, she does see her two terms in student government, one as a senator and the other briefly as vice president, as the final push she needed to get diagnosed and seek medical help.

“It was complicated because I knew that my depression [did]n’t come from ASUCD, but maybe some part of it was aggravated by it,” Huey said. “Being part of ASUCD was keeping me going, but at the same time, the amount of work that was required from me didn’t give me time to fully recover.”

For Huey, events such as the ASUCD Coffee House’s racially-charged Cinco de Drinko party, 2014’s massive unit budget cuts and two terms sitting on divestment meetings, where she voted on whether the UC Regents should divest from companies involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, were primary stressors on her psyche.

“I was thinking about the really traumatic Thursday night senate meetings,” Huey said. “There have been shouting matches moments where you just have to close for the night. I remember having multiple anxiety attacks. Reminding myself of that made me realize that I wasn’t ready to continue. It wasn’t worth it.”

Huey was clinically diagnosed with depression by UC Davis’ Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), now known as Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS), in August 2014, the summer after her term as a senator. Less than a year later, in April 2015, she formally resigned as vice president, only a few weeks into the job.

According to current ASUCD President Mariah Kala Watson, Huey’s running mate, the day of Huey’s resignation was the first time the executive duo had opened their office to the public.

“Everybody was so joyous before this meeting. I remember Robyn walking in and just looking miserable,” Watson said. “She handed me this letter and said, ‘When you get a chance, read this and let me know.’ I started looking at it, and I immediately knew what it was. It was a five-page handwritten letter and the last page just said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m sorry. This is my formal resignation.’”

Huey told classmates in her landscape architecture class before she notified anyone in ASUCD, including Watson, about her planned resignation.

“The people I talked to were people who didn’t know me as vice president or senator,” Huey said. “They knew me as something else. Like, ‘Oh, Robyn. She’s in my landscape architecture program’ or ‘Robyn, she designs stuff and I love talking about design stuff with her.’ Those are the people that I really went to first because they knew me outside of ASUCD and talking to them helped me remind me who I was when I was happiest.”

Huey’s decision to first notify non-ASUCD members followed a defining moment a few nights before, when she realized a majority of the people around her were only contacting her for ASUCD-related requests.

“There was this one night where everyone who wanted to get in contact with me was for something related to ASUCD,” Huey said. “That night I was so tired. That’s when I realized that everyone around me at that moment, they only knew me because of ASUCD or they wanted something from me because of ASUCD. It was sort of a defining moment. It wasn’t about time for myself; it was time for other people.”

However, Huey’s original resignation spoke nothing to her struggle with depression. It wasn’t until months later that Huey opened up about her battle, hoping that others would have the courage to do so as well.

“I think hiding for so long just continued the stigma,” Huey said. “To hide it [was] also to shame my existence because there’s nothing wrong with having a mental illness. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m done hiding. Maybe this will help me and maybe it will help other people.’”

Six months following Huey’s resignation, another member of ASUCD resigned due to mental health issues: former ASUCD Senator Anabiah Syed. While Syed noted that she had very minimal knowledge about Huey’s struggle with mental illness, the two share similar histories with depression, anxiety attacks and stressful divestment hearings, which both members said led to hate emails, including death threats.

For Syed, her reservations with ASUCD began when she was elected in the near-uncontested 2014 Fall Quarter election.

“I tend to give a lot of myself to any position I hold. That wasn’t the case with ASUCD or Senate, and I’ll be the first to admit that,” Syed said. “I did have my qualms about Senate, and ASUCD. To me, it felt like a fairly toxic environment — the type of environment I had done my best to avoid throughout my time at Davis.”

However, it wasn’t until months into her term that Syed found herself retreating from loved ones and becoming immobilized by her depression that she began contemplating resigning.

“Around May, it began to get worse. It felt like the biggest task was even getting out of bed in the morning, afternoon or however long I’d convince myself it was all right for me to stay there,” Syed said.

A few weeks into fall quarter last year, Syed announced her official resignation, but not without some hesitation on disappointing her constituents.

“I never wanted to disappoint all the students that put me there to begin with,” Syed said. “I didn’t want to just give up because that’s what resigning signified to me at that point — giving up.”

According to Watson, the overwhelming desire to please students is why many student leaders sacrifice their mental and physical health for the role they work in, and it is also one of the reasons she believes that more members within ASUCD struggle with mental health issues than expected.

“You’re working 40 hours a week sometimes, and you don’t stop because you’re not thinking about yourself,” Watson said. “It’s dangerous, and it’s definitely why a lot of us go through things. We have this mindset where if we take a break then we’re being selfish, but you cannot function if you’re not taking care of yourself.”

For this reason, Watson is planning to bring academic advisors and a CAPS counselor specialized in ASUCD to the Memorial Union, where a majority of ASUCD units are housed. This is in addition to ASUCD unofficially loosening its reins around missed senate meetings following Huey’s resignation. According to the current bylaws, senators are only permitted one unexcused senate meeting per quarter.

Following their resignations, Syed and Huey are taking different routes to recovery. Syed is currently taking the quarter off and spending time at home with her family following a bad turn in her depression. She plans to return in the spring.

In December, Huey graduated with a degree in landscape architecture and currently works full-time as a designer for Shields Library and strategic communications. Although Huey doesn’t keep up with ASUCD anymore, she affirmed that she doesn’t regret her time in the association.

“It was definitely eye-opening. It helped me grow,” Huey said. “My relationship was so complicated, but if I never went through all of that, I never would’ve been diagnosed. I learned so much. But with that, everything in moderation and eventually you have to move on.”

With regard to whom Huey is today compared to whom she was a year ago, she said that she has a better grasp on how she can make herself happy.

“The difference now with who I was a year ago is that I know myself a lot better. I know how to identify what’s good for me and what isn’t,” Huey said. “I know if something is actually aligned with what would actually make me happier or what is healthy for me.”

Written by: JASON PHAM – campus@theaggie.org

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