The mental health resources crisis at Stanford

Jan. 30, 2020, 11:14 p.m.

When I first saw an email about a community-wide conversation on mental health this quarter, I was relieved. “Finally,” I thought. “We’re going to talk about the mental health crisis on campus.”

I was sorely disappointed.

Of the over 20 “Community Conversations” listed on the schedule of events, not a single one addresses how to seek mental health resources on and off campus, nor do they address any challenges students face in doing so.

Stanford is the third American university I have attended, in addition to two other schools for both my undergraduate and master’s degrees. The schools I attended were similar to Stanford in terms of their financial resources, high-pressure student culture, and size. Stanford is, by far, the one with the most inadequate mental health resources for students. As a student researching climate change, I often talk about mental health with my classmates, recognizing that many of us are researching wicked social problems that carry a heavy emotional weight, not to mention human suffering. I’ve been truly shocked by the experiences I have witnessed at Stanford regarding mental health. Whereas I typically encourage my friends to seek mental health care, I hesitate to do so when these friends are Stanford students on Cardinal Care, because I know that, more often than not, they will have to expend immense financial and emotional resources without being able to actually obtain therapy.

In the time I have been here, I have seen graduate students needing to choose between groceries and therapy co-pays. I have heard too many stories to count of graduate students seeking therapy who can’t receive care: there is no on-campus therapy available at Vaden, which now provides only initial consults. Yet, it is impossible to find off-campus therapy, too. The result is a terribly concerning void for Stanford students.

One graduate student tried to find a therapist at Stanford within their first week of arriving, in August 2018; a year and a half later, they are still looking, because the majority of providers accepting Cardinal Care are either inaccessible without a car or are at capacity and therefore unable to take new patients. Another student found a provider, after calling him for weeks; he had an opening — at 5 a.m. Another student considered traveling to San Francisco for therapy, since a therapist was available there and took Cardinal Care; every therapy session would take at least five hours round trip, not to mention the cost of transportation. The stories go on and on, and they make one thing clear: Stanford, a school with so many resources, isn’t providing basic mental health access to its students.

This lack of institutional support is deeply concerning. We all know school is challenging; graduate students in particular face substantially higher rates of anxiety and depression than our peers of the same age and background who are not in school. Imagine you are a graduate student who is struggling with mental illness. You find it within you to take the important first step of seeking help — but you can’t get it. You’re told by Vaden that there is no therapy available to you on campus, and that you need to find a therapist in the area. You pay for Cardinal Care, which is costly to begin with, and co-pays and travel are unaffordable. And even if you do somehow manage to have the funds to pay for off-campus therapy, you can’t get a therapist. How would you cope?

I recognize the shift to initial consults at Vaden has come from a desire to see as many students as possible. But unless Stanford, Vaden and Cardinal Care work to increase availability and affordability of therapy resources, this shift will simply increase the number of students who cannot access mental health care.

It is unacceptable for Stanford to present itself as an institution that, as President Tessier-Lavigne says, is “continuing to expand support and resources” for mental health, without addressing the inaccessibility of therapy for its students. It is deeply disheartening to see a much-touted two-day event on mental health and well-being that doesn’t, at the very least, offer space for students to discuss these concerns and seek solutions.

Until Stanford places the well-being of students front and center, these words will ring empty.

—Leehi Yona, Ph.D. student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources and Knight-Hennessy Scholar

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