Ali Safawi: An open letter to CSG

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 5:37pm

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Dear Central Student Government leaders,

As you take your new seats as representatives of our campus community, I would first like to congratulate you on your election and to wish you the best. I hope that you are able to meet the numerous challenges, both old and new, with practicality and grace. I am sure the new CSG administration and assembly will make positive change. With that being said, allow me to offer my suggestions as to how CSG can address the growing mental health crisis on our campus.

All of you ran with parties whose platforms and campaigns dedicated significant time to mental health. For instance, MVision, whose candidates won the presidency and vice presidency, as well as a plurality of assembly seats, ran a campaign focused on recognizing the concerns of students with mental health conditions as well as other “invisible identities.” Both MVision and the runner-up party MomentUM also endorsed a goal of reducing the student to mental health professional ratio from 1,200 -to-1 to 1,000-to-1. I am assured that you all believe that it is a serious issue. Yet, realizing an issue’s seriousness is only the first step in taking concrete actions.

There are three interrelated issues I would like to see CSG take on: One, access to mental health care; two, substance abuse; and three, sources of chronic stress.

While hiring more mental health providers and opening a Counseling and Psychological Services center on North Campus are both worthy goals, more needs to be done to ensure equitable access to care on our campus.  

First, the current mental health system, focused on CAPS and the University Health Service, requires students to travel to receive care. This may not seem like a significant issue for routine care, such as biweekly counseling sessions, but forcing students to travel to seek care at the Union or UHS could cause issues in situations of trauma and crisis. Let’s take a hypothetical but all too probable situation of a student in a dorm — say, Couzens who is in the middle of an emotional crisis. Yes, residence advisers are given basic training in crisis management, but that may not be enough. Now imagine having the student in crisis, who could really benefit from a face-to-face session with a psychologist or social worker, walk to CAPS. Add to that the potential for bad weather or the fact that emotional crises do not solely occur during the open hours of CAPS and you end up with a detrimental situation for the student already in a bad place.

I would ask CSG to work with the Residence Halls Association, University Housing and CAPS to assign mental health professionals to each dorm to make it easier for students on campus to access care. While many students live off campus, the University has more power to implement initiatives in the dorms. We already have the staff for this change, we just need to put them in new offices. I realize that the logistics of such a policy are more complex than I have laid out, but I believe such a change, which would decentralize the mental health system on campus, is both achievable and worth the effort.

Second, CSG can play an important role in addressing substance abuse on campus, especially related to prescription drugs. I have noticed almost all of the substance abuse education we get as University students is on alcohol. While attention to alcohol abuse is merited — 20 percent of college students suffer from it — there are other forms of substance abuse on campus that pose a danger to students.

Since the release of Netflix documentary “Take Your Pills,” there has been a new focus on the nonprescription use of central nervous system stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin by college students. A survey by The Michigan Daily found 24 percent of University students use Adderall, whereas only 8.95 percent have a prescription for it. Ignoring for now the academic consequences of nonprescription Adderall use, there is a real mental health danger to students. For instance, there are documented cases of Adderall abuse driving students to suicide.

Another prescription drug, Xanax, also causes me concern. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Xanax is the fourth leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. Per an investigation by the CUIndependent, students at the University of Colorado Boulder, a similarly prestigious state university, use Xanax often in combination with alcohol to deal with anxiety and panic attacks, even without a prescription. While I am not aware of any studies on the prevalence of nonprescription Xanax use on campus, I suspect it would be comparable to Adderall.

While prescription drugs like oxycodone carry a stigma and sense of danger owing to the opioid crisis, I feel the same cannot be said about Adderall and Xanax. I encourage CSG to work with the University on a public health education campaign about the dangers of using these drugs without a clinician’s supervision and about campus resources for those looking to break their addiction.

Third, the University must enter a culture shift to reduce the dog-eat-dog academic environment that breeds so much stress in students. Academic stress is one reason why students turn to Adderall and Xanax. I remember nearly pulling my hair out with worry over my first organic chemistry exam. This should not be happening. While a culture shift will take longer than one CSG term, it is critical that we begin a dialogue on how our academic environment is directly affecting mental health in negative ways.

Another stressor that needs attention is the recurrent racist incidents on campus. It is not enough to declare racism or other prejudice has no place on this campus. Last year, students of color found strong allies in former CSG President Anushka Sarkar and Vice President Nadine Jawad. I hope current CSG President Daniel Greene and Vice President Izzy Baer will continue in that mold.

Let’s prevent mental health problems from developing in the first place.

Granted, there are many serious issues on our campus, however, mental health is one that touches the lives of all students one way or another. I will continue to advocate for better mental health services on campus and look forward to having allies in CSG.

Warmest regards,

Ali Safawi

Ali Safawi can be reached at asafawi@umich.edu.