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A sign of strength’

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series discussing mental health at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s in recognition of national Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Last spring, senior Liam Jackson said he felt stressed like never before as he studied for the MCAT, managed a full course load and prepared to move from Keough Hall to Stanford Hall to be a resident assistant (RA) this school year.

Worried he was burdening his friends by constantly talking about his exams and his stress, Jackson sought professional help for the first time at the University Counseling Center (UCC).

Jackson said he visited the UCC every week for a one-hour meeting in which he “tried to pinpoint all his different stressors.”

“Even just talking alone was extremely helpful,” he said. “[My counselor] was a really good listener and good resource.”

Although he said he felt nervous to tell his friends about his visits to the UCC, Jackson said they encouraged him to continue his sessions because they considered his decision a sign of maturity. After two months, Jackson said he “felt better and accomplished for seeking help” and stopped meeting with his counselor.

Jackson said Notre Dame students might hesitate before seeking help for stress relief and other mental health issues because they are “extremely accomplished people” and worry it might incorrectly be seen as “a sign of weakness.” He said his case demonstrates that underclassmen shouldn’t assume upperclassmen “have it all together” and that going to the UCC is a sign of inadequacy or immaturity.

“This happened to me last semester, not when I was a freshman,” Jackson said. “I was already chosen to be an RA, and this was what I was going through.”

Jackson said the counseling sessions not only improved his relationships and his state of mind, but also gave him tools that will prepare him to handle more difficult trials down the road.

“The MCAT is a very stressful exam, but it’s not the last stressful exam or the last stressful thing that I will encounter in my life,” he said. 

Notre Dame senior Victoria Kay said she only visited the UCC once to talk about her depression that began in middle school. Although she found the counselor to be “very professional,” she said her anxiety in college arose mostly from over-scheduling herself, so, to her, adding another appointment to her calendar seemed counterproductive.

“It’s just a little frustrating for me,” Kay said. “How do I begin to tell [the counselor] my life story? It’s just adding one more thing to the list. Going to St. Liam wasn’t what I needed, but I did go to a few of the Stress Relief Fridays events. I love those because they are little opportunities to step back and breathe.

“If you’re not talking about what’s going on with you, that can be a big problem. … With mental illness, it’s not a sign of weakness to confront it. It’s a sign of strength.”

‘A deeper cause’

Saint Mary’s junior Mackenzie Woods said she and her older sister, a Notre Dame graduate, both struggled with anorexia in middle school. 

Currently a member of the College’s Social Concerns Committee, Woods said a developing sense of independence defined her recovery phase.

“It was a mental thing,” Woods said. “It’s not just about the physical danger of it. That’s a misconception, that it’s all about wanting to be skinny. It’s about a deeper cause, [and] that’s what recovery is about – trying to figure all that out.”

Now fully recovered, Woods said she has observed her peers struggling with similar issues, and felt compelled to share her knowledge about eating disorders.

“[Talk] to someone consistently over a long period of time,” she said. “It’s important to have someone you trust and who knows your backstory.”

Woods said she works on the Saint Mary’s chapter of Project Help to Eat, Accept and Live (HEAL), a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships for treating eating disorders. She said Saint Mary’s needs a permanent club to support the awareness spread by “Support a Belle, Love a Belle” and “Love Your Body Week.” 

Allie Richthammer, a senior at Saint Mary’s, spoke on the student panel for “Support a Belle, Love a Belle” about her diagnosis with an anxiety disorder and clinical depression at age 15. 

Richthammer said she believes the College provides high-quality and affordable mental health services for students.

“I couldn’t afford my therapist in high school because she didn’t accept insurance,” Richthammer said. “One of the great things about coming to Saint Mary’s is that you can go to the [Women’s Health] counseling center as many times as you want, and it’s free. … The only thing you would have to pay for would be if you needed a prescription.”

Even though students may feel embarrassed about having an anxiety disorder, Richthammer said it helps to talk about mental health issues openly. 

“It’s important to know that it’s just one moment, and that one moment doesn’t have to be your entire life,” she said. “Asking for help is a sign of strength, rather than a sign of weakness.”

‘Welcome to being human’

If a student doesn’t find his or her way independently to the UCC or a support group for help with mental health issues, Office of Student Affairs case manager Ann Whitall said her job is to connect him or her with the appropriate services on campus.

“[My job is] a combination of an air-traffic controller, guidance counselor, triage person,” Whitall said.

If a University staff or faculty member suspects a student may be struggling with a mental health issue, they can call Whitall to voice their concerns, she said. 

“I’m sort of the social worker for Student Affairs,” Whitall said. “I’ll call and say, ‘Your rector called me last week, and she mentioned you seem withdrawn. Do you mind coming in and letting me know how you’re doing?’ 

“Sometimes I never even meet with the student in question, but I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. … It’s really meant to keep people from falling through the cracks, which had been happening before. Students weren’t quite sure where to go.”

Many colleges and universities developed similar case manager positions after the shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007, Whitall said. 

“The idea is that if we can create a community of people paying attention to one another’s well-being, we can reach out before crises and tragedies happen,” she said.

Whitall is also a member of the Campus Assessment, Response and Education (C.A.R.E.) team at Notre Dame. Members of the team include Dr. Bill Stackman, associate vice president for student services, Dr. Susan Steibe-Pasalich, director of the UCC, Phillip Johnson, director of NDSP, and representatives from the offices of Disability Services, Community Standards and Alcohol and Drug Education.

Whitall said the group meets to discuss “students of concern,” approximately 80 to 90 students per year.

“Those names come to us through a variety of different venues on campus,” she said. “The idea is we share names to see if anyone else is hearing about this student or dealing with this student in one of these other pockets. We are pulling this web together with the idea being to intervene early on so there doesn’t have to be a crisis or a tragedy or a suicide.”

Although there’s some stigma on campus about reaching out for mental health services, students shouldn’t be ashamed of needing help sometimes, Whitall said.

“Welcome to being human,” she said. “This is part of the human condition.”

Whitall said she operates under Family Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA) laws and only shares student information on a “need-to-know” basis, such as notifying a dean that a certain student is struggling and has connected with the case manager.

“If you’re involved in a student’s care in some way, then I can share information with you about that student,” she said. “I’m often very careful about what I say [to people involved in a student’s care]. It’s none of their business what the details are.”

Whitall said she would like to see faculty and staff reach out to students on their own if they have a cause for concern.

“I think a lot of faculty and staff think it’s not okay to ask about a student’s well-being, it’s not their job description or they’re infringing on their student’s privacy,” Whitall said. “It’s about creating a climate and a culture in which we can reach out to one another and say, ‘Are you okay?'” 


Contact Meghan Thomassen at [email protected]