Hundreds Attend UCI’s Second Annual Reclaim Mental Health Conference

By Sara Chen

Over 400 students from multiple California colleges gathered last Saturday and Sunday at UCI’s second annual “Reclaim Mental Health” conference, which sought to reduce the stigmatization of mental illness and address UCI’s “C-” mental health services access rating through a variety of events and workshops.

The conference, organized by ASUCI and UCI’s Counseling Center, featured a variety of student panels, student performances and a screening of Voices, an award-winning documentary which follows the struggles of three mentally ill individuals in the United States.

“The conference’s student panels, administrator Q&A’s, and interactive workshops were all founded with the hope of inspiring dialogue and collaboration,” said Matt Tsai, one of the event’s organizers. “We believe the passions and unique perspectives of each of our attendees and speakers, faculty and students alike, will culminate in a campus-wide commitment to push from a ‘C-‘ to setting the curve.”

A highlight of the conference was the Q&A session between students and their mental health administrators, including UCI Counseling Center Director Dr. Jeanne Manese, UC Office of the President Mental Health Programs manager Dr. Taisha Caldwell-Harvey and graduate counselor and former UC Santa Barbara case manager, Ryan Sims.

To address mental health services at UCI, Dr. Manese announced the increase in budget and space that has been allocated to these services, and mentioned that she was already planning on interviewing new staff for next year. A portion of the Student Center’s second floor is set to be filled by these new staff. During the Q&A, Dr. Manese also addressed the two-week delay that students face while waiting for a meeting with a counselor. She mentioned that “99.9% of the time,” students in need of an urgent, walk-in meeting would get that meeting, while students on off-duty hours will be free to call the emergency hotline run by staff trained to inform students on their options.

The conference’s workshops and student panels aimed to address not only the most well-known issues of stress and depression, but also extended to lesser known conflicts that affect many students, such as family trauma. In one of the workshops, hosted by UCI Pharmaceutical Sciences Mentorship Program Coordinator Julie Nguyen, Nguyen spotlighted her struggle living with a mother who is a hoarder.

During a student-led panel, fourth-year Michelle Sartika Sobri detailed her extensive struggle with anxiety and panic attacks throughout her years at UCI, as well as the lack of support from her family. According to Sobri, such issues were important to address as over 2,000 students at UCI suffer from anxiety.

“I volunteered in order to reach out,” Sobri said, “This needs to be addressed.”

During a workshop entitled “Schizophrenia, Homelessness and Police Brutality,” Ron Thomas discussed the death of his son Kelly Thomas who died in a police beating in 2011, an incident which highlighted the lack of mental illness training afforded to law enforcement. Thomas also shared his experiences and personal research on the subject of homelessness and mental illness.

“College students are within the age group when mental illnesses are first diagnosed,” said Thomas. “Also it is today’s college students who will one day run the country. To receive awareness now will be key to health and welfare in the future.”

Other featured workshops and panels addressed topics such as self-care, suicide prevention, and eating disorders and included speakers from throughout California.

Dr. Gary Tsai was the psychologist and filmmaker who produced the award-winning documentary, Voices, which was screened on the Sunday of the conference. Tsai was inspired to make the documentary due to his childhood experience with a schizophrenic mother, and he hopes that Voices can change the public’s perception of severe mental illness.

Tsai explained that an “understanding that [people with schizophrenia] are human with good days and bad like everyone else” can shift the tides in both society and legislation.

Throughout the conference, student performers shared their vulnerabilities through their art, including spoken word poetry, synth pop and acoustic guitar performances.

According to Jenna Mason-Brase, who spoke about her experiences of using art to cope with her emotional distress in a workshop, and performed as the vocalist in synth-pop duo Skydive, the conference provided an unique opportunity for education and healing.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Mason-Brase. “There’s nothing else like this at UCI.”