Mental Health at Conn: Are We as in Touch as We Claim?

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Conn’s award-winning Student Counseling Services (SCS) offer a plethora of therapeutic services to students, faculty, and staff alike in one convenient location, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that based on student conversations. Rumors and stigma drown out words of encouragement to those who need treatment, while those who do make appointments may find themselves bouncing from center to center without getting the help they need. Yet students seem reluctant to acknowledge that we have a problem with talking about mental health, and the consequences of ignoring it any longer are dire. The entire campus community, from SCS to campus coalitions and students at large, must come together to address the faults in how we treat mental health on a clinical basis and in our day-to-day lives.

Part of the reason the campus community has such a difficult time talking about mental health is that there is a widespread case of self-affirmation at work. Since Conn is a liberal-oriented institution, students adopt various means of touting a progressive image. General platitudes about the importance of mental health awareness are thrown about in everyday conversation, and “mental wellness” events are a common occurrence.  Students may admit to or channel their struggles via roundabout means—research papers, art installations, films, individual studies—which will invariably garner support from peers.  

Press them harder, however, and the façade begins to crumble; the stigma seeps in from the outside and grows impossible to ignore.

“People are trying to be open about mental health, people are trying to have conversations, but for the most part those conversations aren’t happening the way they should be,” observed Ashley Camacho ‘20, an executive board member for Active Minds.  The impact of superficial dialogue is severe; not only does it foster an environment of (mis)understanding where rumors can easily overpower facts, but rumors alienate people who may otherwise be open to the idea of getting support.  

“Judging from experiences with my friends,” Camacho explained, “students seem to get it into their head that going to see counseling services means there’s something wrong with them… they’re either afraid or think they don’t need [counseling] when they really do.”  Janet Spoltore, director of SCS, concurs: “The most common misconception about [therapy] is this idea that you have to be sick or mentally ill to get help.”

Yet numbers tell a different story: 48% of the class of 2016 went to SCS at least once over the course of their tenure at the College, and 28% of the general student body had at least one therapy appointment during the 2015-2016 academic year. These figures demonstrate that a significant proportion of the student body has historically sought counseling, indicating that need is widespread. The issues surrounding mental health at the College aren’t just due to stigma, then, but to a variety of additional factors entirely within the College’s control.

First and foremost is the intersectionality between SCS and centers like Unity House, the Womxn’s Center, the LGBTQIA Center, the Center for Sexual Assault and Prevention, and Student Accessibility Services. A commendable amount of effort has been put toward forming a mental health coalition that joins these office in order to identify at-risk students and implement outreach efforts. But when it comes to actually embracing intersectionality when treating students, things get more complicated. SCS refers students to various centers if they believe the student’s needs will be better met there, but since individuals at those centers aren’t trained therapists, the student may find the whole experience to be lacking, so they turn once again to SCS, which once again refers them out to the applicable center. As a result, students grow disillusioned by being shuttled to and from services and venting their frustration to anyone willing to listen, thus perpetuating rumors which turn those who would find SCS useful away.

Suddenly the average length of stay for a student with SCS—six sessions per semester, according to data provided by Spoltore—makes a lot more sense. Working relationships with a therapist can last for years; six weeks seems like a trial period in comparison.

Someone with general expertise may not be particularly helpful for a patient dealing with a specific issue relating to intersectional identity, and thus the patient grows jaded by the system itself. Consider the experience of one junior who wishes to remain anonymous: “I went in for my comprehensive intake [as a first-year] and relayed my life story to the therapist, which included things like verbal abuse and loved ones having mental breakdowns. When I finished, he paused a moment before telling me point-blank that it sounded like I had a traumatic childhood… I started tearing up, not because I was upset, but because I was trying so hard not to laugh at how ridiculous that assertion was… It made me feel like a victim rather than a survivor and a fighter.” The student eventually requested another therapist, but reported that then, “I felt like she didn’t really understand what I needed… I stopped seeing her after around six sessions and haven’t used student counseling at Conn since; I just go to my therapist back home when I can.”

It should be emphasized that these issues are far from a “Conn-only” problem. Campuses across the globe are struggling to properly address student needs. And to the College’s credit, a number of cutting-edge programs are in place to help students, from Gatekeeper training (starting Oct. 11) to campus-wide depression screenings and Peer Educator programs.  Spoltore urges students who may have had bad experiences with therapists to try again, saying, “sometimes it’s just not the right match, and that’s okay, it happens,”  but it’s difficult to convince people to do so when rumors and stigma suffocate meaningful discussions about services available to students.  As for issues regarding intersectionality within SCS, the College has taken a few steps in the right direction by hiring post-docs specializing in LGBTQIA and multicultural issues, but more can certainly be done.  

Intent is all well and good, but ultimately doesn’t matter when students fail to utilize services due to stigma or horror stories. Our campus does a lot right when it comes to serving student’s mental health needs, but if the College wishes to help all students on campus they need to address the issues which deter students from seeking help in the first place, be it via improvements to Student Counseling Services, new initiatives that aim to provide an outlet for students to confront stigma directly, or more radical changes.