If you have ever been to an appointment with a therapist at the health center, you might have done exactly what Chris Lyons ’17 did the first time he visited psych services: pause at the door and look around to make sure the room is clear of people that you know, before proceeding up to the check-in desk.
If that sounds familiar, you are not the only one: 27 percent of the student body is currently involved in psychotherapy at psych services, and more than half of of the graduating class will have gone to see a therapist at one point or another during their time at the College. Some go to get help processing an event in their life, such as a family issue or a break-up. Others use therapy to deal with ongoing impediments to their mental health, like clinical anxiety or depression.
Psych services is just one of the resources available to students who are struggling with their mental health in any number of ways. Professors, bonds with other students, mental health community events and personal care routines all have the power to help students overcome burdens that they shoulder as developing young adults in a high-stress environment.
Students often fail, however, to acknowledge their own struggles with mental health as a result of both personal and communal stigma, which stems in part from a mindset of effortless perfection. Cultural barriers from the unique backgrounds of the student body also play a role in increasing stress and making it more difficult for some students to access the help that they need.
This is the first installment in a series on mental health, which will examine all those factors that effect students on a day to day basis, through interviews with various students, community members, and psych services staff.
Students who overcome their hesitation and take advantage of the resources at the psych center attest to the benefit of having an outlet in a neutral party that exists outside of their social circles.
Lyons began therapy at the behest of his friends after experiencing bouts of “very deep sadness” following a break-up. He tried dealing with the stress on his own, but during the winter he found himself experiencing so much lethargy that he had trouble finding the motivation to get anything done, including schoolwork.
“I didn’t know when it was going to stop,” Lyons said regarding the feeling. “I had friends to talk to, but those people are busy… So I felt like a burden to them. I kind of withdrew, and that wasn’t healthy. I had all this pent up emotion and aggravation that I couldn’t really release.”
Like many, Lyons needed the prodding and encouragement of others to visit the therapists at the health center for the first time. Once he did, he found that it was a positive and helpful experience.
“I finally felt like I had an outlet,” he said. “Someone who has heard all of this before.” He continues to see the therapist weekly, and says that their meetings are “kind of a cathartic relief” for him at the end of the week.
Maggie Yang ’16 has also had a positive experience with psych services, but not at the outset. She had little success with the first therapist that she saw when she was dealing with severe anxiety and panic attacks her freshman year.
“I feel like this is a common sentiment on campus,” she said, “that people hear good things [about psych services] and they go and it doesn’t really work for them. It didn’t go anywhere for me.”
She switched to another therapist, who was an intern, and had an even more negative experience. It was only with her third attempt that she found a therapist that she could connect with.
“I think that’s an important thing,” Yang said. “If it doesn’t work out the first time, don’t get discouraged. Because [my therapist] turned out to be really helpful, and it’s just about finding the right fit.”
Paul Gitterman is a psychotherapist at the College. He sees students trying to navigate mental health at the College on a daily basis, and he believes that for many therapy is useful in its neutrality and consistency.
“[Psychotherapy] is a confidential container in which to hold the information [about one’s concerns],” Gitterman said. “Although individuals often have trusted relationships in which they can talk about concerns, they don’t necessarily have a dedicated time, space, and process in which they can do that.”
Katherine Shamsie ’16 started going to psych services in the winter of her first year at the College, when an amalgamation of events at home combined with her daily workload became too much to handle on her own. She has found that for her therapy can only be only part of the bigger picture of her mental health.
“Your therapist is with you once a week for an hour, and that’s a good time to review the week and feel better. But when you have meetings every Thursday and something happens on the following Friday or Saturday, you still have to talk to someone. So I think it’s important to also talk to your friends or your family.”
After his break-up with his girlfriend of five years and the ensuing slump and sadness, Jose Lopez ’17 found comfort in the simple things: talking and playing video games with his close friends, to whom he credits much of his recovery. “I’m very grateful to have my friends,” he said, “because regardless of the time, even if it’s four a.m., they’ve always come through when I needed them.”
In addition to his friends, Lopez utilized other relationships in his recovery. In an advisory meeting with his chemistry teacher, Lopez brought up his personal concerns. To his surprise, his teacher responded that he had gone through a similar struggle in college and shared that story with Lopez.
“Professors definitely care for you outside of the context of academics,” said Lopez. “It’s really nice to have that communication with your professors. I’m very happy that this is a small school because I feel like that wouldn’t happen at a larger state school.”
There are a variety of resources outside of the health center that are available to all students who feel that their mental health is at risk or impaired. The College’s faculty is one example. Mental health events, such as You Are Not Alone, are another.
Shamsie has been going to You Are Not Alone every semester since she first came to the College. Last year, she shared her own story. Not only did she find the experience of speaking out about her struggles alleviating, but also the reactions she received from those listening, who thanked her for her story, moved her. But at another You Are Not Alone, she found the stories brought back up difficult emotions and made it impossible for her to finish the problem set that she had to turn in for the next day. When she asked her professor for an extension, he agreed — and proceeded to send her a song that he thought might help.
Since his own rough patch, Lyons has realized the importance of mental health and worked to get involved in the community. He believes in the same message that Mental Health Committee takes to heart with You Are Not Alone: sharing stories can create a community that is positive for both sharers and listeners.
“I’ve been trying to relay my experiences as much as I can,” Lyons said, “in order to allow myself some acceptance of it and to make it known that mental health is very important. I’d like to bring my own experiences to the table and help people out at the same time, while also reaffirming my own mental health.”