Students and staff consider mental health landscape of campus

With October’s Depression Awareness Month approaching, students and community members have renewed their focus on the challenges regarding mental health issues, awareness and resources. An increasing number of students are seeking help with mental health issues: During the 2010-2011 academic year, 21 percent, or 431, of the College’s students sought Psychological Counseling Services (PCS) at least once. There is widespread agreement, however, that this number does not truly capture the mental health challenges facing students.

Mental Health Graphic
Graphic by Ben Eastburn

A new College Council (CC) initiative, the Mental Health Committee, launched early this month to discuss mental health on campus. Two additional full-time PCS counselors (“Psych Services welcomes two new hires,” Sept. 14) have also bolstered the College’s mental health-related resources, leading PCS Co-Director Margaret Wood to refer to this moment as “a critical juncture for mental health awareness on campus.”

Mental health issues take a variety of shapes, as do the resources available for those addressing wellness. CC Co-President Francesca Barrett ’12 is helping spearhead the new committee.She framed the mental health discussion in the most general terms: “Mental health is a person’s comprehensive state of mind, encompassing psychological, physical and overall health,” Barrett said.

 

PCS visits by the numbers

 

Anecdotal and statistical evidence points to an increase in students making appointments with PCS. In comparison with last year’s 21 percent, 18 percent visited PCS in 2009-2010. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 13 percent of students used PCS.

Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College, attributed the increase in students using PCS not to an increase in wellness issues, but rather a change in culture. “I don’t think the campus is more burdened by [mental health] now,” he said. “But as a community we’re more aware of it.”

Wood added that the stigma of therapy has lessened in the last decade, leading more students to take advantage of the Health Center’s resources. Moreover, Wood noted that the stigma of mental health issues is still prevelant.

Of the 21 percent of students who worked with PCS last year, 26 percent were seniors, 25 percent were juniors, 27 percent were sophomores and 19 percent were first-years. Roughly 40 percent of students visit PCS at least once by the time they graduate, according to Wood.

 

Nature of mental health 

issues on campus

 

In discussions about mental health at the College, several themes about the causes of such issues recur: the hectic nature of life as a student, overwhelming stress with a variety of causes and not feeling able to talk about struggles.

“At Williams, people are just going, going, going,” Barrett said. “We’re not thinking about the present.”

Spalding provided a list of mental health issues that he sees in students. “I talk to students who seem to show signs of depression, grief, detrimental self-doubt, alienation … [and] perfectionism, which goes right along with self doubt, and loneliness,” he said.

Active Minds Co-President Taylor Nutting ’14 described one of the token phrases students use when they talk about mental health: effortless perfection.

“The thought is that everyone is an athlete, a brainiac and is on every committee,” Nutting said. “They’re friends with all their professors, and they seem totally put together. There shouldn’t be that pressure to seem perfect all the time – everyone has their bad day.”

From Wood’s perspective, mental health issues can be described in terms of a range of degrees of depression. Wood also saw anxiety as an issue. “There are a lot of different kinds of anxiety,” Wood said, “including even performance anxiety about speaking up in class.” She added that both specific and general anxieties occur in con-junction with developmental milestones during the college years.

Data from the senior exit survey of 2006 revealed that 46 percent of seniors had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” within the preceding year. That percentage was in line with the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assess-ment Survey of 2006.

On a note more specific to the College, Barrett also cited a lack of proper reflection during students’ time on campus: “No one really stops to relax – no one takes a moment to reflect on what they want to do at Williams, how they want to use their four years here,”she said.

Wood said that counseling can be beneficial to any student as an opportunity for self-reflection. “It’s to give any student a kind of reflective space to think about themselves and their lives and how they develop personally,” she said.

Stress also plays a major role in unhealthy mental states at the College, according to Peer Health coordinator Jillie Schwiep ’13. “The biggest things we see are stress- and depression-related,” she said, “and it comes from a pretty even mix of academics and social life. We need to do better with helping people handle stress and reach out for help when they’re feeling stressed.”

Spalding said that he does not believe that the campus’s stress issues are a simple product of rigorous academics. “I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘there’s too much work’ or ‘there’s too much pressure,’” he said. “It’s more the drive to overachieve, the inability to set boundaries.”

Spalding added that there are specific elements of the College’s culture that we often associate with causing and relieving stress – choices revolving around alcohol and sex. “I’m not against sex and I’m not against drinking,”

Spalding said. “I think alcohol culture and sexuality culture [on this campus] are not conducive to mental health.”

Perhaps the most notable component of mental health at the College is how little it is actually discussed.

“There’s this idea that since you know everyone [at the College], you put a smile on your face even if you were just crying,” Barrett said. “People aren’t willing to admit that they have something wrong.”

Schwiep said that basic conversations at the College often don’t reach far enough. “When I ask friends how they’re doing and they just say ‘I’m fine,’ I can sometimes tell that’s not actually the case,” she said. “It’s important to find out how they’re really doing.”

Spalding also mentioned the culture of silence that frustrates mental health. “What worries me is that sometimes people choose not to talk to each other about the deepest, truest things because they don’t have time or they’re afraid to go there,” Spalding said.

One important reason students may be unwilling to talk about how they really feel, according to Nutting, may be the negative terms we use to describe those feelings.

“People are afraid of terms like ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness,’” Nutting said. “They sound very clinical. Students may not want to talk to Psych Services because they don’t want to be diagnosed with something.”

Nutting advocated the alternative of a more nuanced understanding of students’ feelings, where we understand that there is a continuum of mental health issues.

 

Campus resources

 

The College provides a wide variety of resources for students looking to either talk to someone or get involved in peer-to-peer support.

With the hires of full-time counselors Paul Gitterman and Beverly Williams, PCS now has a staff of 12, including four interns. According to Wood, the Health Center is a training site for aspiring mental health clinicians; the interns do see students with the supervi-sion of the senior PCS staff members.

Wood said PCS’s two main functions are providing clinical services for individual students and performing outreach and education work. She outlined the process students go through in seeking help from PCS. Students call the secretary or come into the Health Center and can schedule appointments with a member of PCS staff within three days to a week without any preliminary consultations or heavy paperwork, a process Wood described as “user-friendly.”

In terms of matching counselors with students, Wood said that scheduling is the primary factor: PCS’s aim is to provide students with a session as soon as possible. She added that PCS counselors work as generalists and that their expertise focuses on helping college students in particular. The psychiatric resident, clinical nurse and psychiatrist on the PCS staff are all able to prescribe medications.

The chaplain’s office is another resource for students to examine psychological wellness. Two elements of their mission statement include serving the community “by supporting students and others in times of struggle” and “by encouraging growth in the spiritual and moral dimensions of human wholeness.”

Spalding also said that spiritual groups play an important role in the College’s mental health landscape. He discussed the various shapes and sizes of spiritual groups, defining them as not only the religious organizations on campus, but also “the people you consider to be your Williams family,” the people you bond with and develop deep relationships with over the course of your time at the College.

As for student groups, Active Minds is the primary mental health awareness group on campus. A chapter of the national organization based in Washington, D.C., Active Minds works to destigmatize mental health by starting conversations about it around campus.

“The official motto of the Active Minds organization is ‘Changing the Conversation About Mental Health,’ but you can’t change the conversation until you start it,” Nutting said.

Nutting took over as co-president with of Active Minds in January. Since then, along with co-president Cooper Nassery ’14, the group has put on several awareness events, including fashion shows, dinner discussions, film screenings and discussions with faculty members and outside speakers. Most of the events took place over February’s Love Your Body Week, formerly known as Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Peer Health, the other notable student health group on campus, is available for students looking to talk to peers about their health issues or questions. The group holds walk-in hours every Sunday through Thursday night, where trained student counselors are on staff to aid visitors and callers.

 

Mental Health Committee

 

In response to student concerns about the state of mental health on campus, Barrett and others decided to create a student committee, now known as the Mental Health Committee, comprised of students with an interest in starting campus conversation.

“[CC Co-President Nick Fogel ’12] and I, along with CC Campus, decided that improving mental health was something we wanted to focus on this year,” Barrett said. “So the first thing I did was assemble a committee to start planning what we could do.”

The committee consists of CC members Barrett, Zach Evans ’12, Amanda Weatherhead ’12 and Krista Pickett ’13; Matthew Piltch ’12, who helped develop the idea for the committee; Active Minds co-presidents Nutting and Nassery and public relations representative Aliza Shatzman ’13; and Peer Health coordinator Schwiep.

Barrett said that committee members have spoken to the deans’ office, the chaplains, President Falk, Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass, the Office of Student Life and the Health Center about their plans. They are also speaking with Athletic Director Lisa Melendy, the Student Athletic Advisory Committee and the Committee on Undergraduate Life.

The committee is currently preparing for the College’s Depression Awareness Week at the end of October.That week is the College’s celebration of the nation-wide Depression Awareness Month. Active Minds has planned a full week of events, including a dramatic opening on Oct. 24 called Break the Silence: That morning, 1100 white flowers will be scattered across Paresky lawn to symbolize the 1100 college students in America who take their own lives each year.

The week will culminate on the evening of Oct. 27 with a major new event called ‘You are not alone.’ The brainchild of the Mental Health Committee, the event will allow students and community members to gather in Goodrich and hear three to four speakers talk about their personal experiences at the College in regards to mental health. There will then be an open microphone for anyone in the audience to tell their own stories. Counselors and chaplains will be on call at the meeting for anyone who would like to talk afterwards.

 

The future

 

The Mental Health Committee is already thinking about several other long-term goals and initiatives. Barrett talked about having a series of speakers throughout the year, as well as creating a peer-counseling program so that students could meet with other peers in addition to PCS. She also mentioned expanding the number of hours that PCS counselors come to Paresky and having hours set aside specifically for Junior Advisors to speak with counselors. The committee is planning on holding a larger forum on mental health at some point this year.

Schwiep discussed the possibility of a mental health hotline, where students could call in anonymously and speak frankly to a trained listener. She also mentioned the creation of a listening training session, which would offer students some guidance in how to talk to friends about difficult subjects.

Other collaborative opportunities will be those between PCS and such resources as the chaplain’s office and the Multicultural Center (MCC). One of the PCS interns is already working with Taj Smith, a new assistant director at the MCC. Wood said that PCS and the chaplain’s office have begun discussions about a mental health awareness day on campus that would possibly occur early in the spring semester.

Dean Bolton also spoke about the extent to which offices should – and already do – work together in this arena. Every week, all the deans, PCS and other Health Center staff, the MCC, the vice president for Campus Life and the chaplain’s office meet about how to best serve and support students.

“These four years are supposed to be the best of your life,” Barrett said. “You don’t want to miss out on them because you didn’t get the help you needed.”

  • Dr. Lee Szykowny ’80

    Delighted to read about the “You Are Not Alone” event. Healthy human connections are the most powerful mood stabilizers we have. And I very much appreciate Chaplain Spalding’s comments about the potential negative impact of sex and alcohol use. Learning to use these in moderation is something we all need to do better.