According to Julie Jampel, the Director of Continuing Education at Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services, one in five students see or have seen a counselor on campus. Christopher Willard, one of the clinical psychologists on the Tufts CMHS staff, estimated that a Tufts counselor sees about six students a day. Thus, it is highly possible that someone you know has gone to Mental Health Services. But although many students have received the help they need from Tufts CMHS, a stigma still exists that students seeking therapy cannot deal with their own problems or that there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
Because of a fear of being stigmatized, some students at Tufts do not get the help that they need and deserve. In fact, Jampel has met with many concerned friends of students. She mentions that “some of the students [CMHS] sees do not come to discuss problems that they themselves have, but rather are worried about their roommates or friends” when the other person will not seek help on their own. In this case, the office helps the student connect their friend with resources and support them while still maintaining a comfortable boundary. The most common issues that the counseling has dealt with have been break-up issues, depression, test anxiety, social anxiety, and traumatic life events—so it is, as Jampel puts it, “the widest variety.”
Students have had life-changing experiences through support and advice from CMHS. One student detailed the progression of her counseling sessions at Tufts. During the first two sessions, “you’re mostly just asked about your life, why you came in, and other questions that allow the counselor to get to know you.” The following sessions are “more in-depth” and provide a space to delve into the student’s issues.
After each session, she left with one minor behavior change to implement for that week, such as making time to attend meetings for the clubs that she enjoys and does just for fun. The approach is to utilize smaller steps to overcome a larger problem. After the end of her sessions with the Tufts counselor, the two discussed the improvements that she had made. “I had made so much emotional progress, but I didn’t even realize it. I knew that things were improving, but I was so amazed at the amount of change because I felt like I wasn’t making huge adjustments.” She summed up the experience as “conversations about your life” in a “place [where you can] talk about something bigger than what you would with your friends.”
All students who gave input about their time at Tufts CMHS had positive experiences; however, the one issue that students had was the small staff. This aspect inevitably leads to the capped-session policy pol and a frustration among students. Currently, after 10 meetings, the counselor must refer the student to an outside counseling resource, which can disrupt an already established rapport between the student and the psychologist—a relationship that Willard says is of utmost importance for successful therapy.
One student became so frustrated with the appointment-booking process that it deterred her from going. The student said, “There were times when I would have to wait 2 weeks for an appointment because the person to whom I was randomly assigned was busy.” Expanding their staff is a goal that Tufts CMHS will probably strive towards in the future, but it is a case in point that CMHS resources are widely used on the Tufts campus.
Overcoming mental health stigma is easier said than done. The national organization Active Minds seeks to “empower students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking.” Among other things, the Tufts chapter of Active Minds seeks to spread awareness about mental health on campus by incorporating media and the arts into their projects, which have included speakers, tabling, flyers, and film screenings. One of the most successful projects that they have facilitated in the past is called PostSecret—an effort that has been gaining momentum on campus, Alex Salvatore, the club’s treasurer, explained. Originally created by Frank Warren, PostSecret is a continual community art project that collects mailed anonymous submissions of secrets on homemade postcards. Various examples are then shared throughout the PostSecret website, book, and exhibit.
Tufts facilitated its own PostSecret project in which postcards were distributed to students’ mailboxes and in the Tisch library and campus center, and then were collected and displayed in the main hallway in Tisch. PostSecret promotes mental health, says Salvatore, in that it gives people an outlet to express their fears and secrets—instead of compartmentalizing them—and a way to feel less alone if they find another person’s secret to which they can relate.
In the past, Active Minds has also tabled around campus asking students to sign a petition pledging not to casually use mental health-related phrases, such as: “That’s so OCD” and “I’m going to kill myself.” The organization hopes to educate students about how using these phrases in everyday conversation can offend those who have actually been diagnosed with OCD or have attempted suicide. Psychotic disorders range from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and can take many forms, but the bottom line is that a person with this kind of disorder would not take the joke lightly.
The battle to overcome stigma is not futile. Though the stereotype associated with utilizing mental health services still persists, it lessens every year, according to Chris Willard. Each year more students realize that the most effective way to handle any emotional problems is not to deny their existence, but rather to address them through counseling—with a trained professional who knows how to handle the hardships that many students face in college. And with the student-run Active Minds as a frontrunner in the Tufts community to destigmatize mental health, there is hope that its current taboo nature will diminish.