Cooperative culture: A modern approach towards mental health in the co-ops

Cooperative culture: A modern approach towards mental health in the co-ops

berkeley co-op

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

rush your teeth at least twice a day, floss once, shower regularly, don’t go to bed too late, drink plenty of water, eat a balanced diet and get regular exercise.” Such are the standards of basic hygiene that most are taught from a very young age.

While we are often encouraged to maintain our physical health, there is seemingly less emphasis placed on the importance of mental health. But why? For many, it may seem that we embody more of our mind and spirit than our physical body. And at academically rigorous and competitive universities such as UC Berkeley, it is especially important that students valorize their mental well-being and remain aware of more pervasive mental health issues.

But in fact, since coming to UC Berkeley, I have noticed the term “mental health” brought up more casually in conversation. And while a clinical definition of mental health exists, students’ definitions and perceptions of mental health vary depending upon their respective communities.

This is especially apparent within the community of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, or BSC. As a member of a co-op, I have observed how the co-ops foster a distinct culture of collective wellness, adopting innovative approaches to address mental health concerns among their members.

Health workers in the co-ops

Often associated with the stereotypes of van-living, dreads-bearing, tie-dye-wearing hippies and punks of Berkeley, the Berkeley co-ops are actually highly bureaucratic. Each co-op, ranging from 17 to 149 students, elects a set of managers within its house to carry out essential needs for all of its occupants. Among managers is a health worker who looks after the physical and mental well-being of the house members.

Health workers — like those who work through the Health Worker Program at the Tang Center — are responsible for making community health resources available to their fellow house members, managing medication usage and providing recommendations for external resources.

But beyond these basic tasks, health workers in the co-ops also organize community circles for house members to vent anxieties and lead out-of-house events for members to expand their social community outside of the cooperative. The co-ops also require their members to attend different social justice and education workshops, including sessions on disability awareness and harm reduction.

Besides this available programming, the language used within the co-ops is also sensitive and self-aware. This is especially true of the careful phrasing around preferred pronouns, race, harm reduction and mental health.

At my co-op, I am the waste reduction manager, and though my duties as WRM do not officially extend to mental health, I have engineered a collaborative project with my house’s health worker called the “Brain Waste Reduction” campaign. The mission of this project is to coordinate times and meet-up groups for a variety of activities geared toward making space for nonacademic activities in the house. These activities, ranging from a house meditation group to fishing to a house movie club, will hopefully create an opportunity for my fellow housemates to de-stress in their home and make their co-op not only a living environment, but a space that also contributes positively to their mental health.

According to Health Education Coordinator of the Berkeley Student Cooperative Guz Gomez, fostering a space that prioritizes mental health demands an emphasis on accessibility. She and the other health workers whom I spoke to all expressed that health workers are meant to appear as a friend rather than a contact number on an informational bulletin board. Health workers make weekly announcements at council dinners in front of the entire house, hold “office hours” and, as co-op residents, are easily accessible to their fellow housemates.

Sometimes the best work of a health worker, Gomez added, is simply serving as a receptive listener. She said the most gratifying part of her work in the co-ops is knowing that she can help her peers shed the weight of their emotional baggage by simply having a conversation with them.

Although serving as a source of stability for fellow house members is at times a daunting and difficult task, the co-op health workers are educated by their training advisers not to take on the role of a live-in therapist but rather to serve as a receptive and nonjudgmental peer adviser.  Health workers in the co-ops are also told by their training advisers to recommend their residents to other professional help resources if they are not able to provide well-informed advice.

And learning to communicate and engage effectively with co-op members is ultimately critical to create a space where issues of mental health can be openly discussed. Other health workers spoke to the fact that body language and verbal statements can often provide subtle indications of an individual’s mental well-being. Health worker “Emily” Jay said she finds that switching the question of “How are you?” to “How was your day?” often leads to more revealing and elaborated responses from peers than the typical “I’m good, thanks.”

During their training, the co-op’s health workers are also taught that projecting personal biases is not a productive entry into a conversation about mental health. With this in mind, the health workers make an effort not to assume more than what the respondent verbalizes explicitly — in other words, recognizing that personal bias can taint one’s ability to read another’s emotional profile.

Gomez exemplified this, saying that if a resident confides to their house health worker that they are having a difficult time managing their course load for the semester, the health worker should avoid making an opinionated statement such as, “You can make it through — Berkeley is hard for everyone,” and instead respond with a neutral question such as, “What is overwhelming you about your course load?”

Challenges of managing mental health cooperatively

But despite these learned strategies and innovative approaches toward addressing mental health in the co-ops, Justin Uribe, the health worker for the Fenwick co-op apartment expressed that mental health is not always easy to deal with on a cooperative level. Since mental health is an intimately personal issue, it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to generalize and create a one-size-fits-all model.

In my two years of living in the co-ops, I have not personally seen or experienced the affinity group and identity circles that are so commonly advertised as special mental health tools. Because the health manager’s work ethic and conducted work is only monitored by the house managers and members, some of the expectations of the position are not always met.

Co-op members are not always eager to reach out to health workers for advice or assistance, since personality conflict and house drama may impact a health worker’s neutrality on an issue and impede accessibility. And when I asked how these health workers would approach a member who looked like they were struggling internally, the health managers responded that they are not advised to project emotions onto fellow members or assume mental statuses.

How then should we build the bridge between the quiet, private and vulnerable nature of seeking mental help and accessible and public mental health resources?  

Most of the health workers I spoke with agreed that the subject of mental health was more openly addressed, vocalized and destigmatized in the co-ops than in their previous living environments. But considering various cultural perspectives of mental health can guide our thinking on what improvements should be made to this system.

Integrating culture into the definition of mental health

Even within the co-op community, each member and health worker has their own approach toward the subject, stemming from their own identity and respective culture.

Gomez described “mental health” as a form of self-awareness and self-control, being able to say yes and no to things, knowing what are her personal causes of stress, her sources of relaxation, merging heart and mind, being able to defend herself and prioritizing self-love.

Gomez added that in her culture, mental health was spoken of indirectly. In her home back in Colombia, although there is no specific term for “mental health,” it was encouraged that individuals address their personal needs and care for themselves. Similarly, in her Presbyterian Christian church, members didn’t use the mental health terminology that is popular in the co-ops, but instead taught self-love, which she believes is a core aspect of maintaining positive mental health.

Lindy Rzonca, Euclid co-op’s health worker, wisely credits the value of introspection in providing an opportunity for individuals to recognize and acknowledge their emotions. Part of her mental health philosophy involves reflecting on negative emotions rather than dismissing them. She explained that, as a transfer student, the unapproachability of her professors in comparison to those at her community college forced her to solve academic and consequent academic stress issues on on her own.

While there is no single cure-all strategy for addressing mental health, it’s clear that by considering and adapting to these diverse conceptions and experiences, the co-ops are taking important and necessary steps toward promoting mental wellness within their community.  

Though mental health may be a quiet topic, its conversation is large. Perhaps the best approach toward understanding our cultural stance on mental health is problematizing the issue by talking about it with our peers and community more openly, without the fear of tackling such a fragile and loaded definition as that of “mental health.”


Contact Layla Chamberlin at

The Daily Californian

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