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Observer Editorial: Lend a hand to UCC

| Friday, October 6, 2017

The Editorial Board says it every year during Irish State of MiND: Mental Illness Awareness Week, but it can’t be overstated: The mental health of students should be a top priority for the University, and the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to end.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in -five adults in America deals with mental illness, with 50 percent of mental illnesses beginning by the age of 14 and 75 percent by age 24.

Over the past few years, more and more Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students seem to be aware of that fact. More importantly, those affected on the two campuses appear to be seeking help. Susan Steibe-Pasalich, head of the University Counseling Center (UCC), said 1,699 students took advantage of the services the University Counseling Center offers during the 2016-2017 academic year. Izzy Fourman, director of the Health and Counseling Center, said in an email that 21.2 percent of the Saint Mary’s student body saw a counselor at least once last year.

During that year, Stanford Hall rector Justin McDevitt said he did not notice any signs of stigma from the student body surrounding mental illness.

“What’s important is whether students feel there’s a stigma, whether there is one or not,” McDevitt said. “I’m sure that that’s the case — that it’s hard to get help, to know that you need help. I think that our community is set up so that students have a lot of resources and a lot of support.”

If the nationwide statistic is assumed to be true at our campuses, 20 percent of students — approximately 2,500 people at Notre Dame — are afflicted by mental illness.

These projected numbers raise a question: Is the UCC equipped to effectively handle the demand for its services in a high-pressure environment such as the University?

It’s an important question, for both play an essential role in supporting those affected by depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. But if the care being provided can be improved, it should be.

The UCC can be an effective resource for students who choose to visit it, and its staff members are well qualified to provide assistance to clients. With a staff of 29 that only includes 13 psychologists and one psychiatrist, however, the demand for the UCC may exceed its ability to provide as much help as possible to the students who need it.

This understaffing is no fault of the existing UCC staff. But it is a problem that needs to be addressed by the University. McGlinn Hall rector Sr. Mary Lynch said the already positive effect the UCC has on campus could be amplified if the University expanded the Center, especially in terms of personnel.

“There are staff-people at the UCC who are experts in many areas that we need experts in on this campus, and they have solid backgrounds, and they have excellent interactions with students,” Lynch said. “They probably could use more, if anything — they could use more staff members than they have.”

Members of hall staff in each residence hall on campus are trained to refer students to the UCC on a case-by-case basis. The University devotes an entire day of training for assistant rectors (ARs) and resident assistants (RAs) to mental illness awareness, informing them of the resources the UCC has to offer so they may best help their residents. They are taught to pay attention to warning signs, looking out for a resident who becomes particularly withdrawn, exhibits erratic behavior or seems to be a danger to himself or herself. In cases that are too much for hall staff to handle, the UCC provides care and assistance. In some dorms, a member of hall staff will go so far as to offer to walk a student to the UCC and wait with him or her, McDevitt said.

If the UCC is not equipped to provide for certain needs, however, students may be at a loss for the next steps to take. Particularly in recent years, Lynch said it has become more difficult for students to attain consistent, one-on-one treatment at the UCC.

“I see the need for counseling has increased in my time here,” she added.

Oftentimes, UCC counselors will direct clients to one of the 10 student support groups the Center currently offers. While these groups may be a productive resource for many students on campus, others might not be comfortable working through personal matters in a group setting.

Ultimately, the problem is not due to a lack of effort on the UCC’s part. It simply comes down to a lack of staff at the Center — which this Editorial Board believes the University could and should remedy.

Mental health is not something to be taken lightly. The fact that so many members of the Notre Dame community feel comfortable using the UCC is a positive sign. Having these resources in the first place and making the public aware of them help diminish the stigma, and the University has made commendable efforts in those areas.

Now, the University needs to take the next step towards addressing mental illness. Providing more resources — specifically funding allocation for more staff — to the UCC is crucial to allowing the Center to more effectively provide for the Notre Dame community.

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