By Julia Schemmer | UC Riverside
On Saturday, September 24, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed AB 2017, a bill that would have established a framework for mental health services for public colleges and universities in California. Although signing or vetoing legislation is a part of his job description, this bill was a particular blow to organizations such as the UC Student Association, the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, and the California State Student Association, who collectively spent months lobbying and advocating for the passage of the bill.
Before the impact of the veto can be realized, it’s important to take a step back and provide context for what AB 2017 is and how it would impact college students. In its original form, AB 2017 would have used the $40 million of unused funds from Prop 63 to create a grant program for colleges and universities. The colleges and universities were responsible for estimating how much they could contribute toward mental health services, and the grant program would match their investment.
My favorite part of the bill, however, was the 5% cap on administrative services. Students don’t want another Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Undergraduate Mental Health Initiatives – we need shorter wait times, a counseling staff that reflects the diversity of the UC, and sufficient outreach services so unreached student groups on campus disproportionately affected by the lack of mental health services could know with confidence that resources exist for them. As a queer, first-generation student survivor actively struggling with food and housing insecurity, I want a counselor that understands the complexity of my needs and is able to provide adequate sources of support to help my UC Riverside journey.
The need for mental health services is clear. On our own campus, the building itself looks like an old army barrack. It’s old, our waiting rooms are small, and our counselors are overworking themselves because there isn’t enough staff to meet the need of the counseling services that students are demanding. Students who need counseling services often wait anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to get an appointment, and with our plethora of different backgrounds and groups represented on campus, it’s important that students are getting the individualized resources they need to have their concerns addressed. Graduate students shouldn’t have to worry about seeing a student from their TA sections when they go to counseling. Between studying for classes, working several jobs, cramming ourselves in small spaces to afford rent, and skipping meals to pay for tuition, students face enough stress already, and our university-provided mental health care system should not also be a source for it.
I’m not going to be a banging drum in the back of the room. For once, politicians, student organizations, non-profit organizations, and campus administrations are coming together on one issue: the fact that our mental health services need serious improvement. With the $40 million generated from Prop 63 (that was currently being unused and unmarked for any specific purpose), we could’ve fixed that. Students would’ve been able to get an appointment in a short amount of time with the counselors that understand them, and in an environment they feel comfortable in.
Sounds pretty awesome, right!? Unfortunately, this story takes a grim turn during the infamous Appropriations Committee. Appropriation Committees are typically the graveyard for all bills, because that’s when state representatives come together to discuss what type of fiscal commitment the state takes if the bill is enacted. During the Appropriations Committee, with Senator Ricardo Lara leading the charge, we saw our little AB 2017 survive, but the original $40 million dollar commitment was cut. Now, all funding became contingent upon the state’s budget every fiscal year, making the lack of funds unsustainable and the heroic intent behind the bill barely recognizable.
Even with everything that AB 2017 went through in the state legislature, I was still optimistic that it would pass. Who wouldn’t want a bill for the betterment of mental health services on college campuses to be signed into law? I spent weeks lobbying, phonebanking and writing op-eds to place pressure on the importance of this bill, but with one stroke of his pen, Governor Jerry Brown wiped away the opportunity for thousands of UC students to get the care they need.
This is more than simply saying “you win some, you lose some.” These are human lives on the line because it takes weeks to schedule an appointment. These are people who are hurting themselves out of desperation because our university does not have enough funds to keep mental health as the forefront of our priorities. These are students with the brightest academic and professional potential being burnt out all too early because their university cannot adequately care for them. Once again, mental health is the last on the To-Do list for the California state legislature, but for those struggling with a mental illness, it’s all we’re able to think about. The state and the University of California typically don’t work in tandem with one another, but their inability to recognize a need of the UC is jeopardizing the health and wellness of the students that the state exploits and benefits from.
Six months ago, a close friend of mine committed suicide, and every day I wonder what could have been done differently to have her back. The thought of her reaching out for help and being denied the care she needs is one that keeps me awake at night, but it’s one that Governor Brown is okay with vetoing carelessly. We’re the 5th largest economy in the world, so why does it still take so damn long for progress to be made when it comes to mental health?
It’s time for a re-prioritization of goals when it comes to the California state legislature. We cannot progress forward as a state until we address our inadequate mental health services with proper, sustainable funding. We cannot be great until we stop questioning when students come to administrators and politicians with their struggles of mental health services. Most of all, we cannot believe that our state is blameless when it is complacent in addressing services that would have been life-saving for thousands of students in community colleges, the CSU and the UC.
Julia Schemmer is a first-year Public Policy major at UC Riverside and Media Intern for the UC Student Association. Her goal is simple: to put the lit back in politics.