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Coping with problems outside the realm of academia

Special Projects Editor

Published: Monday, January 31, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

The inability to be at peace with physical appearance combined with overwhelming difficulties in making adjustments to college life brought one Boston College female to the Women's Resource Center (WRC) for assistance. For another female, the panic attacks and emotional breakdowns that resulted from seeing her former boyfriend grew too severe, interfering with her academics and requiring visits to the University's Counseling Services.

These two students represent the broad spectrum of BC community members seeking assistance for mental and emotional issues. Approximately 1,300 students seek assistance from the University's Counseling Services for a range of mental and emotional issues from the inability to cope with a situation and depression to suicidal behavior.

"The rise in students with mental health issues is not just here, but nationally, and it is not necessarily a bad thing," says Thomas Nary, director of Health Services at BC. "It is different from 30 years ago. Many have been able to come to college now because of better treatment and diagnosis. People now come to college with a variety of issues such as ADHD, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and organ transplants. In decades prior, they would have not been able to go to college or would have been confined to local commuter colleges."

Advances in the treatment of mental illnesses have granted many people access to education previously denied or not feasible due to the inability to accommodate individual needs, mental and emotional issues at colleges and have garnered significant attention. National awareness about the issue has increased due to legitimate concern abut trends since the 2007 massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech by a student. According to USA Today, since April 2007, news reports show that at least 67 people have been killed and 69 others injured in attacks by U.S. college students. Surveys citing increasing depression and worsening emotional health of college students have made headlines since the wave of student suicides at Cornell University in 2010 and the recent massacre in Arizona by Jared Loughner, a dismissed Pima Community College student.

In a recent New York Times report, the emotional health of college freshmen as surveyed by the Higher Education Research Institute has declined to the lowest level since the annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago. The report cites the economic woes and other pressures as key contributors to the low emotional health. In the survey, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent from 64 percent in 1985.

"The study has received much attention," says Thomas McGuinness, director of Counseling Services. "It is a good thing to draw attention to the issue and alert others to resources available. However, the media attention is a bit flawed. For one, the survey is a student's measure of their own emotional health in which the definition varies from person to person. The survey also alluded to the costs of higher education and the stresses of finding a job as major factors in the decline of emotional health. I have never been impressed with the argument of academic stress having a severe impact on emotional health. Those things do not bring people into university counseling. There are much bigger issues for which students seek counseling."

However, emotional and mental issues such as behavioral issues, addictive behaviors, depression, major mental illnesses, and self-harming behavior do bring the significant number of students into University Counseling at BC.

"[University Counseling] addresses the many mental health issues of the BC community from counseling and psychotherapy to crisis intervention, outreach, and training," McGuinness says. "We do have a higher proportion of students come to see us than schools of a similar size."

The high number of students who use Counseling Services at BC, more than 10 percent of the undergraduate population, compared to BC's peer institutions is not due to BC students having more emotional or mental issues, McGuinness says, but rather due to organizational factors.

"Many schools offer multiple departments for mental and emotional health services," McGuinness says. "At BC, University Counseling provides all mental health services. The numbers could also be because we work to reduce the stigma of going to counseling. Though mental health services are centralized at BC, counseling offices are decentralized with offices in academic buildings. We are embedded in academic life. It is part of the academic experience. It is more normalized. We also pride ourselves on being easy to access. After hours, we always have somebody on-call for emergencies. An emergency is defined by the student. If it is an emergency to them, then we will respond."

While the centralization of all mental health services at BC and ease of access to the services is touted as a benefit, not all mental or emotional issues are presented to or discovered by university counselors. Some students present their mental or emotional problems to mentors, residential assistants, or campus ministers.

With many resources available to students, however, keeping tabs on a student with severe issues and ensuring proper treatment is received can become a coordination issue between departments. It is an issue that presents itself at colleges nationwide.

Many colleges are keeping tabs on troubled students through assessment teams from various university departments charged with ensuring students deemed dangerous to themselves or others receive the necessary coordinated treatment. According to USA Today, 80 percent of colleges nationwide have begun instituting these teams since the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. In fact, Virginia and Illinois legally require such teams at colleges.

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