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‘I’m still struggling’: Saint Mary’s students discuss deficiencies in mental health resources

| Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in an investigative series on the accessibility and effectiveness of mental health resources available within the tri-campus community.

When junior Alexandria Leonardo’s grandparent was undergoing cancer treatment, she turned to the Health and Counseling Center for help.

“Having a grandparent go through cancer treatment is just really stressful on that patient and the whole family,” she said.

Whether Leonardo was sick with strep throat or simply needed to talk with someone, the center gave her a place to talk about her anxieties and seek treatment for physical illness.

“They’re really awesome about trying to get the girls in as soon as possible,” she said.

However, she believes some students may be embarrassed to seek assistance for their mental health.

And there’s research to support that belief.

The “Healthy Minds Study,” conducted by the University of Michigan — which includes data from Saint Mary’s — reported that 47% of all students surveyed believed “‘[m]ost people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.’”

In October, The Observer circulated a form asking students to share their experiences about campus mental health facilities and mental health awareness. Several Saint Mary’s students responded to the form and detailed their journeys in finding both resources and acceptance on campus.

Many students on campus have misconceptions about mental health, psychological sciences professor Catherine Pittman noted. A licensed psychologist, she often sees people who believe negative thoughts can be changed by positive thinking, or that mental health struggles are always the result of a traumatic event.

“There’s not just a stigma among people, but people who have a mental disorder often have that stigma and when they realize they have a problem, then something develops called self-stigma where they feel embarrassed [or] ashamed,” she said.

When Pittman teaches, she tries to fight this stigma and battle negative assumptions about mental health.

“There are ideas that people with mental disorders are dangerous or somehow worth less than other people,” she said. “The average person on the street gets their education about mental disorders from the media.”

However, this representation of mental disorders usually leads to misinformation regarding mental health, Pittman said.

She believes mental health awareness should be an integral part of a student’s education from early in their studies.

“It’s so easy for a person to really feel on top of dealing with the disorder they’re dealing with, but they’re also dealing with stigma and they’re also dealing with hostility toward them or people’s fear of them,” she said.

This fear of hostility can lead students towards isolation. Saint Mary’s alumna Elizabeth Stockwell (‘18) felt pressured by the social stigma of anxiety and depression, which prevented her from reaching out to her friends, family and faculty when she needed them the most.

“I’m still struggling,” Stockwell said. “I’m still trying to work through my thoughts about mental health and how I can work within myself to not see this as a negative thing.”

During her sophomore year, Stockwell’s anxiety disorder grew to be unmanageable on her own.

“Sophomore year I had some anxiety and panic attacks,” she said. “During Mental Health Awareness Week, I decided to reach out to somebody. When I called the Health and Counseling Center, they said they couldn’t get me in for two weeks and that was a moment when I felt like they weren’t there for me, especially since it was such an important week, they should’ve had more appointments available.”

The national average for counselors to students is 1:1,600. The ratio for counselors to students at Saint Mary’s is 1:521, which is above the national average.

But Stockwell said because she was not able to establish a connection with a counselor, the subsequent semester and the next year became almost too much to handle.

During her senior year, Stockwell began seeing counselor Katharine Barron. Depending on her needs, Stockwell could go to counseling every week or other week, and her mental health improved.

Once she graduated, however, Stockwell’s anxiety only got worse. She wished graduating seniors received an informational packet at their last counseling session, which would have helped her navigate the mental health care system outside of the College.

For the Saint Mary’s administration, carving out time, money and labor to provide mental health resources on campus can be a challenge, Pittman said.

“For the vice president for student affairs, this is one little sliver of her job, so it’s easy for this to get pushed to the side,” Pittman said.

While many on campus — including the vice president of student affairs — monitor the mental health resources available on campus, the treatment of students’ mental health crises falls on the Health and Counseling Center.

“The [Health and] Counseling Center, they are so overwhelmed,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if they could maybe hire more people, but you know, the College is on a budget.”

While the Health and Counseling Center offers individual counseling to students, group therapy is not available to students. The University Counseling Center at Notre Dame offers many forms of group therapy experiences, but according to its website, most of these groups are only available to undergraduate students enrolled at Notre Dame.

Karen Johnson, former vice president of student affairs, said the College has no plans to facilitate any counseling or therapy groups outside of the grief and loss support group organized by Campus Ministry.

“However, once the new [Health and Counseling Center] director is hired we will reconsider that,” she said.

There is still work to be done to combat stigmas surrounding mental health at Saint Mary’s,  but organizations such as the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) and other confidential and nonconfidential sources can help, Leonardo said.

When thinking of ways to encourage students to seek help at the Health and Counseling Center, Leonardo said advertising and encouraging students to schedule appointments is so important.

They should take their mental health seriously because taking care of the mind is equally as important as taking care of the body, she said.

“Self-realization about that issue is important and so is being a good support system for friends,” she said. “I tell my friends, classmates and peers that mental health is just as important as physical health if not more, because your mind is so powerful.”

Improving one’s mental health awareness can begin in the classroom or at presentations offered in the tri-campus community, Pittman said. Having students take courses related to mental health, she said, will also allow them to learn about mental health since that is one of the best routes to begin educating people on the subject.

“There’s just a lack of knowledge that we really have to address if we’re going to go anywhere so I’m just trying to get that information out there to as many people as I can,” she said.

News writer Gina Twardosz contributed to this article.

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