Mimi Khúc On the Mental Health Crisis

As mental health crises continue to rise among academic institutions, Dr. Mimi Khúc speaks to the root problems, sharing her findings and promoting fundamental change to our systems.
As mental health crises continue to rise among academic institutions, Dr. Mimi Khúc speaks to the root problems, sharing her findings and promoting fundamental change to our systems.

What does it mean to be unwell or to define mental health?

To answer those questions and speak on American universities’ growing mental health crises, the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies department welcomed keynote speaker Dr. Mimi Khúc on April 2 as part of The Care Series. Khúc, whose work primarily explores the Asian American experience, offered her years-worth of findings to an audience of over 100 attendees with a lecture titled “Our Students are Dying: Touring the University Abyss,” speaking on the discrepancies of definitions on mental health between academic institutions and students — those discrepancies being the root cause of our mental health crisis today.

Sharing from her book, “dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss,” published in March 2024, Khúc opened with one of the chapters, looking at associations with unwellness and wellness and mental health. The former’s answers ranged from isolation to lack of community support to inadequacy in many areas of life, while the latter’s answers highlighted community care, self-agency and hope. These student responses, which focus on care, vastly differed compared to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health, highlighting four points of potentiality, coping with stress, working productively and contributing to society. Students in her study, when reading this definition, found these points vague, as they don’t address the innumerable nuances of each individual’s own situation. Khúc pointed out that “students easily see the limitations of the World Healths definition, even as they recognize its dominance in their lives.” Segueing into the crux of her argument, the more students she spoke with, the more Khúc recognized that universities aligned much more closely with the WHO’s definition of mental health as a means to contribute rather than the students’ as a means to build networks of care. This asserts a bleak yet all-too-true statement that “to [her], that says that everything put in place is to help students go back to being productive students, no more, no less.”

It was not just that universities aligned more with the WHO’s definition, but that the very structure of care is solely centered in counseling centers, to which Khúc highlighted a variety of issues, such as: “[long-wait times], limits on number of sessions, rotating clinicians and inevitable referrals out to private, off campus services. Not to mention an array of clinicians with little to no training, working with students of color, queer, trans, non-binary and disabled students.” Counseling centers are statistically not equipped to provide care to every single student on campus, but beyond its present issues, Khúc also called into question the very authority that counseling centers hold in providing mental health care. These centers define, design and implement protocols without input from their own clients. From there, Khúc was implored to further flesh out these discrepancies in defining mental health and unwellness, bringing sample answers from workshops she conducted at an unnamed college for both students and counseling staff/administrative officials.

What does mental health mean to administrators and counselors at this unnamed academic institution? Self-reliance, self-awareness and balance were the main themes of the answers supplied. What does mental health mean to that institution’s students? A supportive environment, emotional balance/regulation and wellness were the primary themes of their answers. Though the answers share similar themes and terminology, they differ in their overall goals when it comes to striving towards mental health. To Khúc, this was a noticeable difference, yet she expressed bewilderment at the groups’ definitions of unwellness. For administrators and counselors, when defining unwellness, the first three root causes that came to mind were “sleep deprivation because of too many extracurriculars, procrastination and substance abuse.” When pressed further by Khúc, social stress and uncertainties of life were included in their collective definition. For her, “these professionals were defining mental health in terms of student’s ability to meet their responsibilities.” Asking students for their definition of unwellness, they not only identified isolation and inadequacies, but specifically called out the academic culture and structures within the college itself and the repeated failures to accommodate and understand their needs. She found that for academic institutions, wellness is conditional — unwellness can be expressed so long as it doesn’t interfere with schoolwork. “Universities adopt the language of wellness, but that wellness is so tied to achievement. You do things to be well, so you can do more work,” Khúc said.

It was clear that there were major underlying issues in mental health care within colleges and universities, though no changes have been made so far, despite Khúc’s suggestions. “Shifting care will require shifting the classroom dramatically, and that is something a lot of faculty are really hesitant about,” she said in the Q&A panel, though noting that even though there are some faculty members wanting to change, the majority does not share that same enthusiasm. It is not about accommodating for new stresses, but fundamentally restructuring care to align more with students’ needs, such as the ones listed. 

This restructuring also involves acknowledging the collective trauma students accumulated from the COVID-19 pandemic, which many institutions beyond universities are looking to pretend it never happened in favor of returning to “normal.” For Khúc, this has led to many students who are left burnt out, robbed of accommodations and forced to readjust without properly processing a large-scale traumatic event. Khúc described it as “constant gaslighting, being told that the pandemic is over, and everything’s back to normal, but then it’s not over.” From people suffering with long COVID-19 to immunocompromised people forced to mask, this mass effort to forget the pandemic is not only harmful to students’ mental health, but their long term physical safety, as they’re forced to readapt and push forward, told by their universities that support is available, while continuing to uphold structures that are the root of students’ mental anguish. Change must start by not only hearing, but actually listening to students. SUNY New Paltz students agreed, as students were invited to share their own definitions of wellness and unwellness on the lecture center’s chalkboard, finding familiarity with students from other schools in their own mental health journeys — from productivity stress to chronic fatigue, to hope in finding strength in community, patience and doing what you love to do without guilt or shame.