It’s a story many college students know: after surviving a dreadful week of midterms and having a great weekend with friends, you’re headed into a new week, ahead on homework, and already excited about the big game this weekend. But then one assignment gets missed, a wave of new projects, papers, and exams crashes down on you, your room mate freaks out that your side of the room isn’t clean, you’re running on two hours of sleep, and swear to God you’re getting fat again. Suddenly, it becomes impossible to continue the balancing act between rigorous academics, a social life, sleeping, eating, working out, and an abundance of school activities. Cue the plummet into a downward spiral of anxiety, defeat, and overwhelming stress.
Each year, Boston College welcomes 2,200 new freshmen into the school community. Students clearly epitomize the University’s motto, “Ever to Excel,” entering with high grade point averages, strong test scores, numerous service opportunities, and leadership positions among multiple extracurricular activities. Under “Boston College Facts” on their website, Boston College declares that 81 percent of freshmen graduate within the top 10 percent of their high school. What’s not mentioned is the baggage that students bring along with their great GPAs and test scores. In their academic article, “Increased demand for mental health services on college campuses: Perspectives from administrators,” researchers Daphne Watkins, Justin Hunt, and Daniel Eisenberg examine the changing role of mental health services at colleges and universities. One of their discoveries is that current college students “have brought with them a level of anxiety and perfectionism…that contribute to record numbers of panic attacks and panic disorders” (325). A challenging college atmosphere along with an expectation and desire to excel fosters an environment of increasing stress and anxiety. For a growing number of students, these stressors have created or contributed to mental health problems. The questions now are: how are colleges addressing the increasing mental health needs on campus? Are they doing enough? How does Boston College compare?
In the National College Health Assessment II (NCHA II), a national survey conducted each year that provides comprehensive data on the health of college students, the American College Health Association (ACHA) reveals that over 86 percent of students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year. Over 50 percent have felt overwhelming anxiety and more than 45 percent felt that things were hopeless. Even more astounding, the report goes on to indicate that 61 percent of college students felt very sad in the past year, over 31 percent felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, and 7 percent have seriously considered suicide (13-15). The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) determines in the webpage “Learn About the Issue” that these staggering statistics are among the one in four adults between the ages of 18 and 24 that have a diagnosable mental illness.
From varying degrees, the majority of college students experience some sort of mental health issues. This ranges from anxiety over their academic work and uncertain futures, to sadness over the difficult transition into college, stress put on personal relationships, low self-esteem, and depression. Watkins, Hunt, and Eisenberg confirm that “the mental health problems of students are more severe now than they have been in the past and that a greater number of students are seeking help” (320). This increasing severity has led to a growing demand for college counseling centers. In the 2010 “National Survey of Counseling Centers Directors” that provides data from administrative heads of university counseling centers and is sponsored by The American College Counseling Association (ACCA), author Dr. Robert Gallagher asserts that 91 percent of college counseling center directors verify that there are a greater number of students with severe psychological problems on their campuses (5). In order to positively impact the mental health and mental health awareness of the student body, colleges must respond and adjust support centers accordingly.
Counseling centers do have the ability to have a positive impact on a significant number of its students with mental illness. Gallagher affirms in his 2012 survey that over 37 percent of the 44 percent of college students with severe psychological problems can be treated successfully with the appropriate support and treatment (5). Encouragingly, many colleges are changing the role of counseling centers in response to the increasing numbers and growing severity. In their academic article, Watkins, Hunt, and Eisenberg describe some of these changes including psychiatric services offered by graduate students to manage the caseload, investing in consultation and specifically outreach through groups, brochures, and campus interaction outside of the counseling office, and providing additional training for staff members to reach the demand of students and handle more complex cases (328-330). Gallagher additionally adds that to increase quality and efficiency counseling centers are expanding external referral networks, providing assistance on center websites, increasing psychiatric consultation hours, using a computerized or telephone intake and assessment system, providing appointments based on availability without regular student holdings, and providing support groups until individual counseling is available (5-6).
It’s important to note, however, that not all universities are making such steps toward improvement. In response to the growing prevalence and severity of mental health conditions experienced by college students, NAMI conducted a national survey in 2012 of college students currently living with mental health conditions. The survey, “College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health” provides college counseling centers with information directly from students on the effectiveness of resources provided to them and what further improvements are needed. Authors of the survey and NAMI staff members, Darcy Gruttadaro and Dana Crudo emphasize that over 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental conditions do not seek services and support on campus. The number one reason that students do not pursue help? Stigma. One survey respondent anonymously determines, “I still feel that there is a lot of stigma and the benefits of disclosing do not outweigh the risks” (9-15). Furthermore, the report indicates that only 31 percent state that their college was supportive on mental health issues. Another respondent admits, “I was scared to let anyone know of my crisis because I did not want people to worry, did not know who I could turn to, and did not want to get into trouble” (18-19). These distressing testaments are a clear indication of the necessity for awareness outside of the centers in addition to improvements within the organizations.
Boston College is one institution taking significant steps toward providing a positive and supportive campus for its students with mental illnesses. Through a variety of campaigns and events, the student body is working to create a campus free of stigma, with counseling resources and an inclusive community. The Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) created Be Conscious in the summer of 2014. Described on the Be Conscious website in, “Mental Health: More than Just a Buzz Word,” this campaign seeks to create an open dialogue and support system regarding mental illness.
There are a multitude of Boston College events that support the ultimate goal of the Be Conscious campaign. BC Ignites: Mental Health Addition is one such event stated in the Be Conscious “Events and Initiatives” page. BC Ignites is a series of public forums with a keynote speaker, music performances, and an open mic for students to speak out in order to spark the conversation about mental health. Boston College also participates in the What I Be campaign, a social experiment started by photographer and creator, Steve Rosenfield. Rosenfiled explains how this experiment turned into a global movement about honesty and empowerment on the What I Be website: “I started this project in hopes to open up the lines of communication, and to…empower those who feel they suffer for something they may see as a flaw.” Boston College students participate by posting portraits of themselves that both expose and embrace their insecurities. Furthermore, Boston College holds numerous campus events during the National Suicide Prevention Week in September. Such events include a mental health summit to improve resources for mental health and wellbeing as well as addressed by celebrity speakers. One past success was Kevin Breel, a comedian and mental health activist, who shared his struggle with depression and the importance of starting a conversation to end the stigma (“Events & Initiatives”).
Unsatisfied, Mike Izzo, a Boston College student, started the Authentic Eagles series in one of the school’s progressive magazines, The Gavel. In an Authentic Eagles post, “Senior Reflection: Mike Izzo, Authentic Eagles Editor,” Izzo explains that the idea came to him when leading a school retreat and having an “incredibly vulnerable” conversation with his co-leader and the freshmen in the group. Although the idea for Authentic Eagles was rejected by the magazine editor at first, Izzo states, “I was bent on bringing vulnerability to Boston College’s campus.” The Gavel describes the series as an opportunity to give voice to students who have experienced first hand the vulnerability that comes with being your authentic self. Topics range from community and acceptance, perfectionism and humility, growth and resilience, to loss, rejection, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. The article explains, “As Boston College Students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible.” The contributions are a true testament to the student body’s hope to reduce the stigma of such topics and embrace vulnerability of students on campus in a supportive community.
Authentic Eagles inspires students to start the conversation and reflect, while the University Counseling Services (UCS) offers direct resources for students in need of any type of support. In “A Letter From the Director” on the Boston College UCS website, McGuinness asserts that more than 1,400 students are seen by counseling services each year. The wide range of reasons includes depression, anxiety reactions, eating disorders, problems with friends and roommates, family issues, and adjustment difficulties. Therefore, a significant number of students use the counseling services and are encouraged to visit for any matter. Although most students, the letter states, receive one-on-one counseling and psychotherapy, there are group-counseling services available for those who would benefit from making changes with other people while working on shared problems. Most students who seek help are offered short-term psychological counseling and may be prescribed psychiatric medication in addition, after a consultation process. Students who require long-term or specialized counseling are referred to other, local mental health services. Additionally, in the case of an emergency, UCS maintains a Psychological Emergency Clinician offered 24 hours a day, either on campus during regular working hours or over the phone after office hours and on weekends. It also provides “Feel Better Now” resources for students’ immediate well-being (“Counseling Services”). An anonymous Boston College student relates her experience with stress and visiting counseling services on campus in “University Counseling: What It’s Like, V.1” on the Be Conscious website: “I’d recommend going to anyone–whether you need to talk about stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, whatever. It helps.” The student’s ardent referral and positive encounter with UCS validates the benefits and support provided by counseling services to students with mental health concerns. Particularly at Boston College, the UCS as well as the entire student body, emphasize and continue to take steps to address the mental health of college students and identify, understand, and solve those problems in an accepting community.
However, is Boston College doing enough? In a society where approximately 61.5 million Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime and 75 percent of those conditions will develop by the age of 24, counseling resources and psychiatric help are critical (“Learn About the Issue”). Especially in colleges and universities where student mental health issues are growing in number and severity, mental health continues to loom as an alarming issue at the individual and university level.
“About Be Conscious.” Be Conscious: UGBC Mental Health Initiative. Boston College, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.
“Authentic Eagles: The Story.” The Gavel. Boston College, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
“Boston College Facts.” Welcome to BC. Boston College, 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
“Counseling Services.” Boston College Counseling. Boston College, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
“Events & Initiatives.” Be Conscious: UGBC Mental Health Initiative. Boston College, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.
Gallagher, Robert P. National Survey of Counseling Center Directors. Rep. no. 85. N.p.: Web. 17 Nov. 2014.
Gruttadaro, Darcy, and Dana Crudo. College Students Speak: A Survey Report On
Izzo, Mike. “Senior Reflection: Mike Izzo, Authentic Eagles Editor.” The Gavel. Boston College, 14 May 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.
“Learn About the Issue.” NAMI on Campus. National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
McGuinness, Thomas P., Ph.D. “A Letter Fromt the Director.” Boston College Counseling. Boston College, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
“Mental Health: More than Just a Buzz Word.” Be Conscious: UGBC Mental Health Initiative. Boston College, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.
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Rosenfield, Steve. “Project Info.” What I Be Project. Steve Rosenfield Photography, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.
Watkins, Daphne C., Justin B. Hunt, and Daniel Eisenberg. “Increased Demand for Mental Health Services on College Campuses: Perspectives from Administrators.” Qualitative Social Work: Research and Practice 11.3 (2012): 319-37. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.