By EMILIA OTTE, Staff Writer
Sometimes the stress of college life can be so overwhelming that students don’t know which way to turn.
Maura Fitzpatrick is trying to change that.
On Friday, March 31, the senior political science major brought together 18 students in a discussion about mental health on campus with the goal of creating and offering suggestions for improvement in the ways the college addresses the mental health needs of its students.
The group read testimonies written anonymously by fellow Bryn Mawr students. They then shared their impressions of mental health on campus with an administrator, and finally drew up a list of recommendations specific to administration, the Counseling Center, faculty, and finally to be applied more broadly across campus.
Fitzpatrick decided to focus her forum on mental health after attending a town hall meeting in the fall of 2015. The meeting started out by focusing on issues of race on campus, but quickly transitioned into a discussion on mental health. “I was taken aback,” she said, but Fitzpatrick, who herself ended up taking a medical leave in the fall of 2016, also recognized how important the issue was.
At the 2016 fall plenary, Fitzpatrick passed out a draft survey asking students for their impressions regarding mental health on campus. From the responses to her survey, from concerns voiced at SGA meetings, and from her own personal experience with mental health, Fitzpatrick drafted a plenary resolution entitled “Funding to Improve Mental Health Services on Campus”. The resolution was intended to be brought forward at Plenary this past March, but the loss of quorum prevented the resolution from being presented to the student body. All of the points that Fitzpatrick listed in the plenary resolution would resurface during the forum.
Although Fitzpatrick invited several faculty and staff members to participate in the forum, only one attended, and some did not even respond to her invitation.
The lack of response was disappointing for Fitzpatrick, who was especially intent on breaking what she called the “culture of silence” surrounding the topic.
“It needs to be talked about,” she said.
From that belief came the name of the project: BMCSpeaks2017.
Fitzpatrick’s choice is a timely one. Recent studies have shown that the number of students struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other psychological issues has been steadily increasing over the last decade.
According to the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 44 percent of their clients were found to have “severe psychological problems”, a huge jump from 16 percent in 2000.
This trend means that a large percentage of college students on campuses across the nation are struggling to balance schoolwork, friendships, and extracurriculars—a challenging task on its own—while grappling with a psychological disorder that makes this challenge even more difficult.
In a 2010 survey by the American College Health Association, 45.6% of students said that they felt things were “hopeless”, and 30.7% reported having difficulty functioning over the past year due to feelings of depression.
How can colleges and universities address this large-scale problem? Faculty, staff, administration and students all have different answers. But there is one theme that is repeated by all: lines of communication must remain open across campus.
Forum attendees spoke about a need for greater communication between the administration and the student body regarding mental health. This could happen, they proposed, through voluntary forums or reports that the Dean’s Office could distribute to the student body. The students expressed frustration that their viewpoints were not being heard.
Dean Jennifer Walters wants to change that.
“We need to do a better job communicating to students what is available, and our challenges,” said Dean Walters.
But, she added, she also needs to hear from the students. She hopes that the forum will open up an opportunity for a dialogue, as well as present the opportunity to debunk certain myths about college policies.
Walters also wants to push back against the stigma associated with mental health problems. “[Students] feel they are supposed to tough it out, and they hesitate to get care when they need it.” She added, echoing Fitzpatrick, “We don’t talk about it enough.”
The Dean’s Office as a whole is also reevaluating the ways that it keeps in touch with students who have taken a medical leave. It is important, Walters explained, to stress the fact that they want the student to return to Bryn Mawr after having taken the semester off.
One of the concerns raised in the forum was the inability of certain students to receive care while on medical leave comparable to what they would receive at college, due to financial difficulties. Walters acknowledges that this is part of a national problem—that college healthcare does not always equal home healthcare. The forum additionally proposed that the Health Center be more open about the costs of care on campus.
The number one stressor for Bryn Mawr students, according to the students themselves, said Dean Walters, is academic pressure. “We draw students who have very high expectations of themselves,” she explained. In that same vein, the forum participants recommended that a forum be created for professors and faculty members to discuss the issues that students face on campus.
Dr. Leslie Rescorla is already facilitating that.
Rescorla, a Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Child Study Institute, began organizing faculty forums in the fall of 2015. As a professor of Intro Psychology, a class in which there is generally a large number of first-years, Rescorla has watched many of her students struggle and became concerned that they were not receiving the help they needed.
Rescorla’s first forum, focused on anxiety, drew 40-50 faculty members, and included at least one faculty member from many of the departments on campus. She has since organized forums on ADHD, depression, and autism spectrum disorder, as well as one about the challenges of adjusting to college. These forums vary in the number of faculty in attendance, but none have been as large as the first. The forums this year included a student panel.
Rescorla’s goal is to help faculty members recognize the signs of a particular disorder, understand the effects it could have on a student’s academics, and respond in a way that best meets the student’s needs.
“Faculty members vary a lot in terms of willingness to accommodate,” said Rescorla, adding that the two most common academic problems associated with mental health issues, infrequent class attendance and missed deadlines, are rarely excused by the Dean’s Office.
Faculty members have also expressed confusion about the best way to approach a student who seems to be falling behind. Where is the fine line, they asked, between the necessity of understanding the situation and invading the student’s privacy?
One change that would ease concerns for both professors and students, Rescorla believes, would be more targeted accommodations. The college’s policy on accommodations, Rescorla explains, often does not extend to students suffering from issues such as anxiety and depression. A reevaluation of this policy could help the many students who don’t know where they should go when mental health begins to impact their performance in the classroom.
The focal point of mental health care on campus is Counseling Center.
By far the most frequent recommendation, voiced by students, faculty, and administration alike, was the need for more counselors.
Reggie Jones, Director of Counseling, says she would agree.
According to Jones, the Counseling Services sees approximately 33% of the student body in a year, and 50% of Bryn Mawr students come to the Counseling Center at least once in their four years at the college. As more and more people across the country access mental health services earlier in their lives, the demand for counseling at Bryn Mawr and other colleges has grown. The college, said Jones, is currently in the process of interviewing for another counselor.
The students present at the forum also advocated for a greater diversity of counselors. Currently, the Counseling Center has 33% diversity in its staff. “As a woman of color,” said Jones, “Diversity matters. Students…need to be able to see mirror-images of themselves in all departments on campus.” For Jones, diversity needs to extend beyond just the Counseling Services and into the greater BMC community to continue to support students’ sense of belonging.
Other requests included the hiring of more psychiatrists than counselors (the college, according to Jones, has about 34 hours a week of psychiatric time, more than either Haverford or Swarthmore), ensuring that counselors would stay for a period of years (the Counseling Services currently has nine staff members that stay put from year to year, as well as up to six trainees who remain for only one year), having a Health Center “suggestion box”, and the ability to make appointments online.
The physical space of the Health Center was also brought into the discussion. According to Dean Walters, the college plans to begin construction of a new building within the next year or two, pending approval from the board of trustees. The building will house the Health Center and the Counseling Services, as well as other Student Life. It will most likely be built next to its current location.
A better building, Jones believes, would also help to improve some of the perceptions surrounding the Health Center and its services.
While the Counseling Services undoubtedly plays a central role in helping students work through everyday struggles, strategies for good mental health must be supported and encouraged by the surrounding campus environment.
“[We need] more tangible examples of self care on campus ,” one forum attendee wrote, then added in parentheses, “Not just milk and cookies.”
“More emphasis on coping outside and inside the class,” urged another.
“How to cope with isolation and loneliness.”
“The normalization of ‘Everyone at BMC has depression/anxiety.”
The students asked for a larger number of spaces on campus reserved for social events rather than schoolwork, for more varied extracurricular activities, and for an increase in sponsored access to Philadelphia. Additionally, the students suggested that Dorm Leadership Team members should receive additional training in mental health issues, since sometimes students will approach a peer first, rather than an adult.
Fitzpatrick summarized in her report that what happens after the forum is now up to the students, professors, and administrators who want to continue the conversation. Social media, plenary resolutions, student body surveys, and further forums are all potential options for raising awareness across the campus.
“There is a lot to be improved,” One student wrote, “And students have ideas on how to improve them, but nothing ever happens with them.”
The college community has the power to change that.
Correction: Fitzpatrick is a political science major, not a psychology major, as was published in the print edition.