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Colleges: Stop Trying to Replace Real Mental Health Services With Puppies

Last week, I tweeted something without thinking much of it. I do this a lot — as a freelance writer (and a stressed-out student with a lot of opinions), I’m constantly tweeting jokes to ease the dread of being Very Online.

I figured that, at best, my friends would get a laugh out of the tweet. At worst, no one would like it and my ego would suffer. I never could have imagined the real outcome.

[Image description: Tweet that reads: “Universities: Need help? Use our mental health services! The services: -A golden retriever comes to the library once a week -There’s one therapist on the campus of 40,000 students -There are bathroom stalls you can cry in for free!”]

When I went to bed, the tweet had under 100 likes. When I woke up the next morning, it had 20,000. The following day, it exceeded 250,000 likes and was making the rounds on Reddit, Tumblr and university meme pages. Every five minutes or so, people I hadn’t spoken to since high school — all university students now — were messaging to let me know I had “made it.”

I’ve had tweets go somewhat-viral before — they’ve all been short, quippy jokes without much substance to them. But this was a whole new level. Over the course of a few days, what was intended to be a lighthearted joke spiraled into a wider conversation about mental health services and what universities owe their students

The tweet was sparked by my frustration towards universities with a lack of support systems for their students. Though I’m lucky to attend a school that does have some resources (and is currently on the path to expanding them), they’re limited: students report long wait times and inconsistent services. 

A lack of resources would be frustrating on its own. What’s even more frustrating, though, is the way universities pat themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum. 

While services themselves are scarce on campus, conversations about mental health are constant. Slogans like “it gets better” and “reach out for help” are repeated like mantras: they’re made into posters, plastered on bathroom stalls and laminated onto pins. This makes it all the more disheartening when they actually do reach out for help, and the resources they’re seeking — namely therapists and crisis services — are either hard to access or not there at all.

What my university lacks in real, robust mental health services, they try to make up for with half-hearted solutions like therapy dogs or de-stress sessions with free hot chocolate. But while Mulligan the golden retriever is cute, he’s a temporary solution — he’s not going to fix the mental health epidemic universities are facing.

When the tweet went viral, hundreds of students from schools around the world shared their own disillusionment towards their schools’ approach to mental health. Some students reported wait times that lasted months just to see a therapist. Others shared stories of being told to download guided meditation apps or join drumming groups as a solution to serious mental health problems. 

It quickly became clear that this is a nearly-universal problem. While it’s bad for all students who need help, it’s especially scary to know that students in crisis situations have been turned away and that students from marginalized backgrounds have had their issues heightened or brushed off. 

Unsurprisingly, the tweet was also met with some vitriol. There was one question that kept coming up: “Why should schools be paying for mental health services, anyways?” (Though, believe me when I say the questions were worded with much more colorful language). People in the responses said that students who need these services are soft, and they should find them on their own. 

Here’s the thing: universities are meant to offer resources that keep their students safe, happy and healthy. We pay for them — for example, at my school, each student coughs up over $200 annually to fund athletic services like the gym, which is free for all students to use. If we don’t bat an eye at campuses splurging on new treadmills or Booster Juice franchises, why do we hesitate when it comes to saving students’ lives?

That’s the reality of the situation. Students are dying on university campuses. While slogans like reach out for help and it gets better might make for great posters, they don’t have the capacity to make meaningful change on their own. If universities want to facilitate conversations about mental health, they also need to put their money where their mouth is — to invest in life-saving resources.

Knowing that my tweet was so relatable is upsetting, but it’s not surprising. It feels like honest conversations about mental resources are long overdue — by now, universities should know that the odd therapy dog and a glitchy mental health app aren’t enough. The lack of resources for students is a real, systemic issue.

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