Community reflects on impact of culture on mental health at College

This is the second half of an installment exploring mental health at the College through interviews with students and staff.

Cultural nuances

Resources that work for one person, like therapy, are not necessarily suited to the needs of all. With a student body as diverse as the College’s, it is difficult for the administration and the student body to provide for a variety of different viewpoints and histories. In particular, students from marginalized groups can struggle to find the targeted support that they should get.

The College hired Psychotherapist Paul Gitterman four years ago for this very reason: to serve underrepresented individuals on campus. “I think [the administration] was particularly interested in me meeting the needs of individuals who may have difficulty accessing our services, either through feeling that their experience coming to campus wasn’t as welcoming as it could be, or feeling marginalized by dominant cultures,” he said. The majority of his time goes to seeing students in individual therapy, but he also runs a group psychotherapy program and works with student groups involved with issues concerning social identity and the culture at the College, specifically how to make it a welcoming place.

“I think that the change into this community is challenging for individuals who suddenly become more aware of aspects of their identity that in previous communities weren’t things they needed to be aware of,” Gitterman said, “and that creates tension both internally and relationally. People want to feel connected to people around them and may have found barriers they didn’t realize existed before … It’s easy from a mental health perspective to imagine how an individual experiencing those tensions could internalize that experience in a way that makes them feel bad about themselves, or makes them feel more stress than we want them to experience.” It is important for him, and for his colleagues as well, to be sensitive to each individual’s experience.

That effort is important for students whose upbringing has a large effect on how they process and deal with mental health issues at the College. “As a person of color,” said Maggie Yang ’16, “I had a friend point this out to me and I see it as a reality: there are very few therapists on campus that are people of color. That’s a big issue because there are a lot of cultural things that some kids go through that are impossible to understand” if the therapist doesn’t come from a background that makes it easier to fully empathize.

Jose Lopez ’17 comes from one of those cultures. He said that his family has had difficulty sharing feelings for his entire life, which has made it difficult, though certainly not impossible, for him to open up to them. “We don’t really talk about our emotions. That’s just not what we do … it’s just that masculinity we have to uphold. It’s very pertinent in Latino families.”

His family’s stigma on psychiatry has also created barriers for him in regards to going to psych services, something he has chosen not to do so far: “Growing up in my family, you only went to go see a psychiatrist or someone in mental health services if you actually had some sort of ‘mental illness,’ like if you were suffering from depression. So whenever somebody in my family would say, ‘I’m going to see a psychiatrist,’ the response would be, ‘What? Why would you do that? What’s wrong with you?’ I guess that’s just stuck with me.” Even now, his first response when someone says they are going to mental health services is sometimes to ask them what is wrong with them, despite having recognized the potential benefits of talking to the neutral party that is a counselor.

“Effortless perfection”

For Yang, one part of her cultural background has been a boon to her recovery: meditation. She comes from a Buddhist family, so she started to delve into meditation as a way to mediate the symptoms of her severe anxiety that began emerging in her first year at the College. Her first experience with it, in a retreat, was calming. She found it helpful to know that through meditation, she could “deal with something on [her] own.” Though she practices it less frequently now, it helped her find her footing as she started to learn how to best take care of herself.

With the constant barrage of academic and personal stress that a student at the College faces every day, setting aside time to take care of one’s own mental health is a challenge. Katherine Shamsie ’16 employs a variety of methods to keep herself mentally healthy: she writes, runs, plays the piano and spends time with people who make her laugh, all of which take her mind off of the negative things and give her a refresher so she can get back to the task at hand. But she also had to learn how to force herself to put her work down when she realizes her mental state will not allow her to concentrate. “If I’m not in the mental state where I’m able to do work, I forgive myself for it,” she said, “which is really hard to do here.”

Part of the difficulty of self-care on this campus stems from students’ personal pressure to achieve what Gitterman refers to as “effortless perfection,” which is the damaging and unattainable goal of success at no personal cost. For him, the recipe for disaster is not mental health struggles or mental illness alone, but rather the “I’ve got to do it all by myself and be perfect” mindset to which many students suscribe.

Jenny Dewar is the orchestra manager of the Berkshire Symphony. She has had her own struggles with mental health issues related to menopause and her obsessive compulsive tendencies. In her work with students, she has observed a stigma evolve in the form of self-judgment. She does not believe that any student would judge another for consulting health services because he is feeling overwhelmed.

“I don’t think that shows a sign of weakness,” she said, “and I would be willing to bet that most people around here wouldn’t say it’s a sign of weakness. But they might feel that it’s a sign of weakness for themselves to ‘give into it.’”

When most students at the College were “numbers one, two, and three” at their high school and are used to succeeding at the very top of their class, shifting to an environment full of achievers like the College can create an intense atmosphere of academic stress, she pointed out. Beyond that, students have to deal with relationships and personal struggles on top of their workload.

Lopez has found that the workload has actually made his recovery easier, because he is so caught up in his work that he has not had a chance to think deeply about his issues. “But it’s also kind of destructive,” he admitted, “because I’m just pushing them out and not dealing with them the proper way.” That sentiment is common among college students, not just on this campus but around the nation, even the world. Gitterman noted that whatever personal notions students hold against seeking help for mental health issues are not unique to the College, though he believes that “Williams has its own unique brand [of stigma].”

Shamsie once held her own stigma surrounding mental health, buying into the idea that any mental health issues suggest a level of insanity. That was before she struggled through her own issues. Now she has a different standpoint about therapy and mental health care as a whole. “If you’re bleeding from your leg, you should put a bandaid on it. That would make sense. You do these things for your physical body, the same applies to your mental health. It takes some time to realize that, but I think once you do, all the stigma behind it goes away.”

One comment

  1. “Stigma”

    People who validate a “stigma” give it power. People who learn to direct it at themselves surrender all power.

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