When we have a problem, especially one that feels private and personal, or even shameful, it is easy to imagine how big it can grow. Contained inside of us, without hope of escape, a hidden problem is a heavy, tired burden. This is often the case with mental illness. In an environment as competitive and socially focused as an elite college campus, students are especially susceptible to anxiety and depression among other disorders. The resources we have on campus at Boston College to support and treat struggling students are crucial and valuable, but they may also not be enough.
BC’s University Counseling Services (UCS) is tucked into the basement of Gasson Hall, hidden away from the bustle of campus. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming; students are greeted with smiles and encouraged to wait among scattered tables topped with magazines and bowls of candy. UCS has counselors, psychologists, and a psychiatrist on staff to meet the wide range of student needs. The quality of UCS does not suggest that it would struggle to meet students’ needs, but unfortunately, this is all-too-often the case.
A friend of mine, having attended a few sessions of counseling last semester, was dismayed when, at her last session, her counselor explained that she would no longer be able to continue working with her due to the high demand for counseling from other students. She was referred to an off-campus therapist and sent on her way. A mixture of inadequate availability and unwillingness to travel and pay for therapy may deter her and many other students from seeking treatment once their “allotted time” at BC counseling services is up.
The University only offers short-term counseling to students due to limited resources and typically can only see students once every two weeks. Instead of turning students away who could potentially be in mental or emotional distress, shouldn’t the answer instead be to expand these resources and make new hires? If any BC department is worthy of more funding, surely it is UCS. Many students lack the time, money, and transportation to attend off-campus therapy sessions, making on-campus counseling the best option. Health Services would not turn students away if they got sick too often or had a case of the flu that just wouldn’t quit, so why should counseling operate any differently?
Student mental health should be more than an afterthought—it should be a priority on campus. My own research and that of others has made this clear.
Last year, in working to understand my own experiences with an anxiety disorder, I focused on college mental health in a research project. Specifically, I wondered why and how college students avoid conversing about mental health. In a culture where awareness and openness of these issues is developing, why does our interpersonal dialogue seem to lag?
What I really wanted out of my research and interviews were candid, honest thoughts and opinions from my peers about mental health issues on campus, with the aim of understanding how and why we choose to engage (or not to engage) in these conversations. What I got was this and more.
In talking to 10 randomly selected students, I was taken on an unexpectedly emotional journey. With the knowledge that their interviews would remain anonymous in my research, students confided in me. With the exception of two students, every participant I spoke to had struggled with mental health at some point during college. In these conversations, I found connections with my own struggles and saw the potential benefits that more open dialogue about mental health might bring. I also learned that, in directly addressing my own journey and telling my story as a means of introducing my research to my class, my anxiety disorder felt normal, and I felt relieved. This experience taught me, above all, the value in talking directly and openly about mental illness, a practice best exhibited by counseling.
Both the value of counseling and the immense need for it became clear to me by the end of my project. Mental illness is truly an epidemic on college campuses and the need for the administration to address this problem with increased resources is imperative for the health of individual students and the health of the University as a whole.
Professional studies and statistics also reflect my experiences. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health Annual Report (2015), 48.8 percent of students surveyed attended counseling for mental health concerns and 33.1 percent take medication for a mental health issue. These numbers are staggering and eye opening as to just how many college students deal with mental health issues and are willing to seek treatment. Therefore, it seems obvious that BC should focus on expanding and more adequately funding mental health services and programs, along with increasing student awareness of the resources currently available. Mental health is being put on the backburner and students are being referred elsewhere in times of need.
BC students should be offered counseling and mental health services for as long a time period as they need. College is a busy and demanding time in students’ lives, and counseling should be accessible right on campus. BC should expand its currently offered resources for students to promote the well-being of the community, improve overall students’ performance, and make good mental health a priority for one of the most susceptible populations. Not doing so is turning our back on students in their time of need.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff