The first of its kind, the Reclaim Mental Health Conference was hosted last Saturday by ASUCI.
The brainchild of Caroline Nguyen and Parshan Khosravi, next year’s ASUCI president, the conference was conceived out of the need to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. The event was co-sponsored by the Counseling Center as well as several state and national mental health organizations.
“One of the biggest agents that fuels stigma is lack of discussion and proper education and discussion about mental illness,” said Nguyen. “A conference — bringing hundreds of students, staff, and community members together — was the most anti-stigma event I could think of.”
According to Nguyen, over 80 percent of the 300 attendees were UCI students. The rest were community members and students from other UCs, California State Universities and community colleges. While most of the workshops were hosted by UCI students, community members and college students outside of UCI led workshops as well.
“The ultimate goal is to reform the way mental health services is delivered and increase funding, but in the meantime, I just wanted to give students a safe space to learn and relate to one another,” Nguyen said.
Workshops addressed several political and social issues through the lens of mental health in addition to workshops on specific mental illnesses and coping mechanisms. One of the first workshops of the day was focused on mental health in the media by examining coverage of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. UCI Counseling Center Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Milo Dodson facilitated the workshop by using examples of racialized content in media and how it can manipulate narratives of the Black experience. Dodson went on to connect this to the mistrust that exists between people of color, especially Black people, and mental health professionals. The workshop then engaged the audience in a discussion about the lack of access and recruitment for mental health professionals in communities of color.
Other noteable workshops included discussions on eating disorders, the effect of transphobia on mental health, how to treat depression through physical activity, and how being an undocumented student affects mental wellness.
The conference also hosted keynote speakers for opening and closing ceremonies as well as lunch time. One of the speakers was UCI professor of history Dr. Bob Moeller. Moller is the faculty co-chair for a campuswide committee on mental health and has been advocating for destigmatization and mental health resources at the UC system for years. During the conference, he shared about his experience with battling depression and coping with suicide loss. He also discussed the work that the campus mental health committee does on campus which is a unique task force in the UC system.
For Nguyen, the most impactful aspect of the conference was the student panels, during which different groups of students dealing with mental health issues shared their experiences with small audiences.
“I think hearing directly from students who have struggled with mental illness gave the audience the security and comfort to share as well,” Nguyen said.
Event organizer Parshan Khosravi, whose ASUCI presidential platform stressed expanding mental health resources for students, said that he hopes next year’s conference will span over two days.
The conference’s brochure included a statement from the International Association of Counseling Services, Inc. regarding the optimum ratio of counseling professionals to students on a university campus, which is set at 1 staff member per 1,000 to 1,500 students.
Currently, the Counseling Center has approximately 20 doctors. Meanwhile, UCI’s total student population is almost 30,000. The lack of sufficient mental health resources on campus became a recurring topic throughout the conference. The need for more institutional support echoed throughout workshops, panel discussions and keynote speeches
“We have the momentum to begin the advocacy for the expanded resources,” Khosravi said.
“I hope that in year from now, when we do the conference, I get to say that the ratio of the counselor to students meets the recommended ratio by the national statistics,” Khosravi said.