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UCI Center of Medical Humanities Kicks Off Year-Long Mental Health Webinar Series with Dr. Mimi Khúc

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Dr. Mimi Khúc of Georgetown University led “What is Mental Health? Caring Our Way Through the Apocalypse,” a virtual workshop that focused on discussions around mental health in the context of a pandemic and social unrest on Oct. 22. This workshop, which was the first of a year-long event series presented by the UCI Center of Medical Humanities, marked the opening of  “Open In Emergency: Differential Unwellness Within UCI Student Communities.” 

During the interactive webinar, Khúc asked attendees to participate in reaching a collective definition of unwellness and wellness. This was done to begin building structures to nurture mental health in the future.

Participants identified “anxiety, depression, lack of agency, isolation, pessimism, emptiness, feelings of fatigue, lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, invalidation of feelings, a pressure to succeed and an unsupportive environment” as contributing factors to unwellness.

In comparison to previous mental health events she hosted, Khúc noted that responses during the pandemic were different since they involved more emotional states and several issues regarding COVID-19.

Khúc considered virtual programs relevant to what unwellness is in this moment, saying that “Zoom is bad to our bodies, eyes and in feeling disconnected to people despite making efforts to being connected. And [such proctoring programs] police student bodies, further delimits normative ways of being in your body and doing schoolwork, and then punishes people for not conforming.”

When defining wellness, participants listed “feeling safe in a community, feeling happy, energetic, motivated, a hope for meaningful experiences, having purpose, acceptance, and feeling connected” as defining characteristics.

Khúc said that the “context of crisis” changes the collective’s definition of mental health and goals in achieving wellness. 

She then presented the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health, which states, “[m]ental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

When presented with this definition of mental health, participants felt that it contrasted to their collective understanding of mental health because it emphasized capitalism and productivity, normalized stress, and did not mention any emotions.

Although the understanding of coping has expanded during the pandemic, Khúc said that some forms of coping will still be viewed as pathological if they do not allow individuals to be productive.

“Many universities are touting wellness right now. There are buzzwords around self-care and wellness and mental health initiatives on campuses … There’s a lot of energy around it at the administrative level,” Khúc, who is concerned that some universities are more aligned to the WHO definition of mental health than the one understood by students, said.

Khúc questioned if the goal of universities was to “have you feel better so that you can go back to your classes and be productive.” She noted that an administrative lack of understanding what mental health means to students will be harmful. 

While traveling to several campuses to speak on mental health, Khúc noticed that counseling centers often have a goal of “getting more students to go to the counseling center.” However, this aim results in long lines and understaffing, limited sessions and referring students out.

Although every person has mental health needs, Khúc said, “What is very obvious is that university counseling members cannot see every single student and every single faculty member and every single staff member. They just cannot handle that.”

Students also noted that due to the lack of students on campus and the remote learning model, the responsibility of facilitating wellness has fallen onto individual faculty members. 

“There are not larger structures in place that provide this kind of care and it falls on individual professors to make choices about how to build care into their classes,” Khúc said. 

Furthermore, Khúc said that structures that were put in place by universities, such as therapy dogs, yoga and nap pods, may be helpful in relieving symptoms. However, these resources do not necessarily address the form of wellness that students strive for. 

“Even with good counselors, good people with really good intentions, counseling centers are not built in a way or empowered in a way to nurture this other kind of mental health,” Khúc said. 

In order to work towards wellness, Khúc said that mental health and wellness must be thought of in a more expansive way on campuses; in different kinds of places and in different forms that involve, but do not rely solely, on counseling centers.

“Therapy can only give individual tools to help process things. It can’t fix COVID-19, or the fact that we have to be on Zoom, or how awful midterms are, and cannot change the structures in place that are causing our unwellness. How we fix the thing that makes us feel like s**t is by ourselves and by our communities and with each other,” Khúc said.

Rachel Vu is a Campus News Intern for the 2020 Fall Quarter. She can be reached at rnvu@uci.edu.