Mental Health Town Hall erupts in protest

FARAH FARJOOD / AGGIE

Students demand promised counselors, question allocation of mental health fee

On Feb. 12, at the Mental Health Town Hall organized by Student Health and Counseling Services, three UC Davis administrators faced student questions regarding SHCS’ funding allocation and potentially deliberate setbacks to staff growth. The three administrators — Executive Director of Health and Wellness Margaret Walter, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Divisional Resources of Student Affairs Cory Vu and Director of Multicultural Services for SHCS Paul Kim — delivered opening statements to a room full of about 200 students, faculty and community members.

The administrators discussed the findings of the recent internal CS audit from December of 2017, which was published in its entirety several hours before the town hall took place after portions were made public by The California Aggie. Walter, Vu and Kim answered both in-person and online questions — often met by intense audience frustration. The event was live-streamed and uploaded in its entirety.

In 2016, the UC Office of the President announced an $18 million UC-wide initiative for the hiring of 85 mental health clinicians including an additional 12 counseling psychologists at UC Davis. The audit found the usage of $250,000 of mental health funds at UC Davis to have been spent in a manner which “may not be consistent with the rationale for the fee increase.”

In her opening statement, Walter praised a “vibrant” conversation revolving around UC Davis mental health. She joked that “she was a little disappointed” because she thought that she would see signs from student activists at the event, saying “maybe you’ll pull [the signs] out later […] that would be fun.” Later in the evening, students pulled out pre-made signs and began protesting inadequate responses from the administrative panel, demanding the hiring of the 12 counselors. The panelists and moderator asked students to speak one at a time and submit their feedback through set-up posters and online messaging.

Walter called students the administration’s “bosses” because the SHCS operates primarily from Student Services and Mental Health fees. Walter said that when the $18 million UCOP initiative was first announced in 2016, “it was very exciting to hear that we were getting these new people.”

According to Walter, the plan did not pan out as expected and SHCS had to use Student Services and Mental Health fees funds to “stabilize” and “shore up” current positions rather than bring in the promised new positions. Walter said five more positions have been stabilized.

Panel members and students unpacked the audit findings and confronted administrators about a lack of transparency after original plans to increase clinicians had changed. Students echoed the audit’s questioning of the $250,000, spent on two positions in Student Services and Judicial Affairs and the UC Davis Student Disability Center, and demanded the promised 12 additional counselors.

Walter came to a different conclusion, admitting that SHCS at one time had a “commitment to the 11 positions” based on “assumptions that did not come true.” Walter, Vu and Kim sought to justify the spending of that money on the Student Services and Judicial Affairs and Student Disability Center positions. The audit stated that “guidance published by UCOP in 2015 indicates that the funds should be used in support of the CS department” and concluded that the allocation to external departments resulted “fewer funds […] available for recruitment of CS counselor [full time equivalents].”

The students demanded answers for budget management. The UCOP recommended the mental health funds go to the counseling services, but these were non-binding guidelines. Other findings of the audit included inadequate numbers of staff, low productivity of counselors, problems with student appointment scheduling policies and access and staff salary and retention.

Donald Dudley, the director of the Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs, was present to justify the allocation of the $250,000 to departments outside the SHCS stating that the funds were used for a non-clinical case manager position who works with students and academic advisors, the student retention center and housing providers. Jennifer Belleci, the director of the Student Disability Center, spoke about the number of students who need disability treatment, explaining why one of their staff members is a psychologist who determines student eligibility for services and is paid with the funds.

The audit also found that administration had been unclear in that SHCS “leadership has not articulated a strategic plan for Counseling Services.”

A pie chart was provided via projector showing the different allocations of SHCS funds, from crisis support and case management to consultation and clinical counseling.

Walter talked about a growing student need for crisis treatment stating that each time student needs evolve and each time “something is added, other parts of the pie have to shrink a little bit.”

Aj Ballesteros, a first-year sociology major and a member of Students for a Democratic Society, responded to Walter’s statement of shrinking parts of the pie chart. Ballesteros told the panel that they should increase funds for SHCS and “increase the size of the pie.” Ballesteros rejected Walter’s statement that students were the bosses of administration.

“Firstly, it shouldn’t be students’ job to advocate for our own mental health — y’all should be advocating for us in the highest level, all the way up to the chancellors and even UC Regents,” Ballesteros said. “Y’all said that students are the boss of y’all, but I completely disagree. I don’t think we have any meaningful democratic engagement in allocating where our tuition fees go. We certainly are not the boss of administration.”

Shradha Shah, a second-year psychology major and the policy advocacy officer for the Student Mental Health Coalition, said “this health care is ours” and that students “have already paid for it.”

“A survey in 2015 revealed that 40 percent of undergraduates at UC Davis felt so depressed that they could not function on a daily basis,” Shah said. “12 percent said they seriously contemplated suicide.”

Shah then read the Coalition’s petition that 1,100 students and faculty had signed. She asked students who signed the petition to stand, and at that time around 30 students stood up.

“In 2015, UC Davis student affairs committed to a net increase of 12 counselors by the end of the fiscal year 2017,” Shah said. “Today, we are in 2018 and a recent audit has shown that this recent commitment has yet to be fulfilled. And despite rising tuition cost, we have yet to see additional mental health support. This is about us students, and not only what is rightfully ours, but what is needed for our wellbeing — and at this point — our survival.”

The petition demanded the SHCS add 10 more counselors to complete the 12 counselors they had previously committed to, as well as increase the salary of counselors and increase the prioritization of hiring queer and trans counselors. The coalition asked for heightened transparency of budget allocations and project updates, increased student participation in decision-making and mandated mental health training for professors and TA’s.

The petition’s co-author Samantha Chiang, a fourth-year English major and the director of the Mental Health Initiative, advocated for students she said have been failed by SHCS. Chiang said “increased services” are “integral to our survival.”

“It’s for the students who can’t get appointments,” Chiang said. “The students who muster up the courage to walk into North Hall, only to be told the next appointment is three weeks out. So they call in for day-of appointment at 8:05 a.m., but they are told the appointments were all booked a minute ago. So they give up. It’s for the students who have to schedule their panic attacks, because they can only get seen five times a quarter, if they’re lucky. So they try to assess which mental health breakdowns merit an appointment. It’s for the students of color, who say they can only work with CAN counselors, because the rest invalidate our issues.”

Chiang said her SHCS counselor left because “UC Davis couldn’t pay him a competitive salary.” Chiang asked the panel what they plan to do to help the community and if they are  “going to give us the 12 counselors” that they “promised” or if they will “sit in silence as we struggle to survive.”

Walter replied to this comment by saying that administration and students “want the same thing” and “of course we agree with you.” She also said the university plans to hire one counselor every year for the next three years.

“I’m so sorry if promises made haven’t come through,” Walter said. ”I can only speak for myself and the staff, and we do have a commitment to those positions. I don’t believe the commitment to the 11 positions at the time was made on assumptions that did come true — that was banking on having enrollment increase, and that did not happen. We do have that commitment from UCOP to have those three increases that we’ve earmarked for positions. When we fill these positions, we can show you. I’m sorry if we’ve let you down. I can assure you I’m working on not doing that now, and we will keep the transparency going so you can see that that’s true.”

Students in the audience rejected this apology, saying they found it to be empty and not satisfying their concerns. Administrative panelists said it is important not to get fixated on the number of counselors. Students audibly disagreed.

One student in the audience spoke about how anxiety and mental illness compromise the ability to get help when it is needed most, stating it can become a negative feedback loop of needing help but facing personal obstacles in getting that help. The student said they were told by UC Davis counselors that their post traumatic stress disorder was invalid.

Students were also concerned with the recent intended firing of the director of Counseling and Psychological Services, Sarah Hahn, one day after she filed a Whistleblower Retaliation Report. Students at the town hall said Hahn’s requests for financial allocation information put a target on her back.

Katrina Manrique, a fourth-year English major, told the panel and audience that on Feb. 8, Hahn filed a Whistleblower Retaliation Report and “on Feb. 9, she was escorted out of counselor services, by you, Margaret Walter.” Hahn said she was threatened and intimidated after raising concerns about the allocation of the mental health fund.

Manrique said Hahn was a consistent advocate for the 12 missing counselors, and since the release of the audit and since filing for whistleblower protection, she has been fired. Students and a recent article published in the Davis Vanguard claim foul play in her termination.

“We can’t comment on any confidential personnel issues, but we all want to be contacts for you and advocates for you,” Walter said. “I’m sorry that you felt you only had one person.”

Chiang fired back at Walter, saying that Hahn was the “only one who didn’t lie to our faces about the counselors being fired.” Walter did not reply.

Aaron Latta, a third-year political science — public service major, read an official statement from the Davis College Democrats Mental Health Caucus, stating that budget misallocation “can’t be swept under the rug.”

“The administration has to understand there are many different groups on campus working with this issue, and when the university lies to us and ends up doing the exact opposite of what they told us they were going to do, it makes us all look bad,” Latta said. “Even if you can’t comment on specific personnel issues, at least assure us that those who step out and prove wrongdoing are protected by the institution that is a public utility of education, not a private corporation.”

To this point, the administration replied that they will better the department based on the audit’s suggestions as well as the future findings from the Mental Health Taskforce led by Dr. Cam Carter.

First-year gender, sexuality and women’s studies major Francesca Iacono spoke about how SHCS at UC Davis failed her. She had her psychiatry appointments canceled on her during finals week, and with her family out of state, UC Davis was her sole support system within proximity. Iacono said that when students call Mental Health Services, staff often don’t pick up.

Kim replied to this, saying that administration “certainly prioritize access to service.” He talked about how the same-day access model in counseling has been done away with at UC Davis, and that appointments have to be scheduled in advance now.

According to Kim, the SHCS sometimes refers students to community partners. Yet to this point, an online question rebuked that off-campus professionals are rarely available, rarely accept insurance and charge enormous fees. Chiang previously mentioned a barrier due to types of insurance.

To this, Vu admitted that there was “an issue of access to community providers” with not accepting new patients and insurance. Walter said that SHCS wants to hear feedback regarding appointments accessibility, and claimed that it is developing a “button to click” online to make mental health appointments.

In terms of specific actions, Walter said she’s starting a “student advisory group” for keeping the conversation going between service providers and students. Applications for these positions will be released soon. Vu talked about creating tangible change through investment in student success grant, utilizing a crisis text line being developed and teaching bystander advocacy and peer-on-peer help.

When the moderator announced the town hall was concluded, students were unsatisfied with the answers SHCS administration provided. Fourth-year psychology major Dylan Newman held a sign reading “Yet another UC Davis corruption story” and rejected what he saw that night.

“It was a crock,” Newman said. “A thinly-veiled attempt by administration to manipulate the perceptions of a student body that they do not take seriously or respect.”

Newman said administration skirted from responsibility by focusing on claimed benefits to students.  

“They accepted no negative feedback from students, despite the fact that there was plenty of it,” Newman said. “[They talked] about various programs that they run, which is laughable, because the entire reason that so many people are upset is that all of these million little cheap bureaucratic initiatives they run do not meet the basic need of having a good core of psychological and psychiatric healthcare for their student population. Students wept while they told us about waiting weeks for help — they struggled to survive mental health nightmares without any local support. Kim and Vu and Walter replied that their hearts hurt, but accepted no responsibility and promised no action on their part.”

Chiang stood up and approached the panel at the front of the room, pleading for them to deliver on past promises. Chiang told the panel that she “wanted to work with” them and “wanted to believe” in them, but that students “need our 12 counselors that were promised to us.” Chiang said SHCS did not confirm a follow-up meeting time.

“I’ll be here all night,” Chiang said. “You all are paid to be here and we are not. Clearly, so many more students have things to say. As for our follow-up, we were operating under the assumption that you all were ok with those twelve counselors. We paid for those 12. We ask you to care about student health, not admin wealth.”

At this point, students applauded Chiang and chanted “Student health, not admin wealth.”

The moderator and panelists tried to quiet students, telling attendees the town hall was over and that questions could be continued via online submissions. The moderator told students that they “will get a response” and that “the meetings will be set and a followup will be made.”

“How about right now with all of us?” a student responded.

“What’s the purpose of a town hall if we don’t get a response?” another student yelled.

 

Written by: Aaron Liss — campus@theaggie.org