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The New Normal

Campus | March 7, 2016

The recent Tufts Dance and Drama Department production of Next to Normal portrays characters facing a wide array of mental health issues. There’s a mother dealing with bipolar disorder and coping with the loss of her infant son nearly 20 years earlier, a husband struggling to put on a happy face as his family falls apart, and a daughter who strives for academic excellence—and later starts popping pills—to cope with the absence of her mother’s love. The family dilutes the symptoms with music, pills, and lies until, more by necessity than by choice, the reality of their dysfunction comes flooding through, making way for discussions and eventual resolutions.

Modern college students on the whole are following a similar trajectory from silent coping to seeking support. A 2015 study of mental health in 93 US colleges and universities finds that the number of students seeking mental health services has grown by almost 30 percent in just the past six years. Julie Jampel, the Staff Psychologist and Director of Training at Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS), said that the most significant change to our campus’s center has been in the numbers: about one-quarter of the student body currently uses a CMHS resource during their time at Tufts. And while the on-campus counselors are popular, they are only one of the many options now offered in the realm of mental health. Students are slowly beginning to absorb an important message: it is acceptable to seek help.

“Fifteen, twenty years ago,” Dr. Jampel said, “people were coming mostly for developmental issues—leaving home, identity, relationships—those kinds of things. And some people would come for what we call more severe psychological difficulties: depression, anxiety. Now, that trend has reversed.” The top reasons that Tufts students report seeking university mental health resources are anxiety, depression, and stress, followed by relationship problems and family issues. This data matches the national trend. In other words, while numbers have increased overall, cases of anxiety and depression now outnumber those of students struggling to cope with the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

In understanding the rise in students coming forward for serious mental health concerns, a consideration of students’ life before Tufts provides a part of the answer. Destigmatization of mental illness has begun, for some, in the home. In a survey of 199 Tufts students, over half of the respondents reported that their parents encouraged them to seek help if they needed it, and 35 percent said they had used mental health resources before arriving at Tufts, including psychiatrists, therapists, high school counselors, and support groups.

Coming forward about mental health issues looks different now than it once did, when counselors were the only resource. In response to the changing mental health climate on campus, a greater number of options have emerged. “Some students are more likely to listen or believe if their peers say something about mental health than if an authority does,” said Dr. Jampel. This is where Tufts Active Minds, a chapter of a national organization, comes in. Tufts Active Minds acts as a bridge between CMHS and the student population, raising mental health awareness from within the student body. The group holds weekly meetings, corresponds with CMHS, and plans on-campus events, including an upcoming Mental Health Monologue Night to be held in April.

Student groups such as Active Minds and Ears for Peers have not only allowed CMHS to increase its on-campus presence and debunk myths about their services, they also provide alternative resources for students who do not feel comfortable with the traditional model that CMHS provides. “In general,” said Dr. Jampel, “it is important to have more than one avenue on campus because one size doesn’t fit all. Say that someone that really needed to see us,” she added, “started with Ears for Peers. It could be the beginning of that process. Maybe we’d be their next step if not their first.”

However, even when resources are available, many students find that speaking up is a challenge in itself. 15 percent of survey respondents reported that they did not feel comfortable seeking mental health support. For junior Slide Kelly, it was his upbringing that initially deterred him from using campus resources. “Addressing mental health needs was not something I was brought up to believe that guys do with therapists, or with other people,” he said. “To admit that I can’t help myself with this…I felt like I was failing in some ways.”

Another junior who responded to the survey believes there are limits on what Tufts can do as an institution to increase students’ comfort with mental health. “The one thing that the university cannot help with is getting the person that needs help to admit it,” he said. Despite this, there is pervasive discomfort about approaching university faculty about these issues. The Gatekeeper trainings, developed about six years ago by CMHS, were intended to target this issue. Professors, Residential Assistants, and student leaders have been and continue to be trained to better identify signals of distress and communicate with students in a gentle, guiding way. Still, 83 percent of surveyed students said they felt uncomfortable or very uncomfortable speaking about mental health with their academic dean, and 71 percent said they felt uncomfortable or very uncomfortable communicating these issues to their professors.

Not so with their peers: survey respondents seemed to be more comfortable sharing with their classmates than with anyone else, with 80 percent of participants reporting that they would seek friends regarding mental health issues (60 percent said they might speak to an on-campus counselor). Even more notably, students are aware that other students are seeking help. 85 percent of students surveyed said they knew at least one person who had used a university mental health service, and over half said they had more than one friend who had done so. Kari McNeil, co-president of Active Minds, explains why this type of dialogue may be flourishing. “Even on the individual level, if you tell someone something personal, it makes it normal to talk about it,” she said.

The more Tufts students are discussing mental health, the more capable they are of pointing friends and family towards the right channels. For this reason, the growing discourse around mental health is particularly encouraging. As the anonymous junior noted, “People really like to just be better. You break a leg, you wear a cast and then you can walk again. It takes a while, but you can walk again. With mental health, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel because there’s no end of the tunnel. You don’t know when you’re going to be better or if you’re going to be better.” There are no instant cures for mental illness. As the dialogue around mental health expands, however, more pathways are created and illuminated, and there becomes a greater chance that students will find their own personal version of a solution.