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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Pioneering education

By Camila Barrios-Camacho

This past summer, the American Psychological Association (APA) released an article entitled, “More students are hospitalized for mental health problems,” which reported a 47 percent increase in hospitalizations since 2008. Furthermore, the article reports that 75 percent of college directors felt that their counseling centers needed additional psychiatric services to meet the demand posed by students.

Grinnell’s mental health services have seen several changes in structure and leadership over the past three years. When I started out as a first-year, Grinnell was partnered with Poweshiek County Mental Health Center (PCMHC) and the campus health center offered walk-in hours, where students could meet with PCMHC counselors. In the Spring of 2010, Grinnell switched over to provide in-house services and hired the current director of SHACS, Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., to provide wellness programming for students, a positive stride that the College has taken.

The APA’s statistics, while unfortunate, reveal two important trends that I’d like to point out. For one, an increase in hospitalizations suggests that mental health issues are being de-stigmatized and students are becoming more proactive about dealing with their distress and colleges are responding to this proactiveness by providing more resources and avenues for students to address mental health issues. By empowering students who struggle with mental health illnesses to make healthy choices for themselves, we are also creating an environment that is understanding and compassionate towards students who are fighting hidden psychological battles.

On the other hand, the fact that an overwhelming majority of counseling center directors need additional resources reveals that we need to be doing much more. In addition to funding wellness programs, we also need to be more proactive as members of a close-knit community to look at issues of mental health realistically and honestly. A look at Secrets published recently on GrinnellPlans suggests that the anonymous website provides a cathartic release that may not necessarily be readily available on campus:

Wed August 31st 2011, 3:52 AM
I’m dangerously close to some kind of edge. Not the usual, depressing, boo-hoo my life sucks shit. two nights ago I didn’t sleep a wink because my chest tensed up and I saw demonic images whenever I almost fell asleep. I have more fantasies of fighting complete strangers than I have sex fantasies. I feel for nobody I know personally, and see no hope in anyone else in the world.

Wed August 24th 2011, 10:50 PM

Why do I have to fight to be happy? It’s a f***ing battle I don’t have the energy to fight against all the time.

Of course, Secrets need to be taken with a grain of salt since all postings are anonymous, but it is safe to say that every weekly posting of Secrets displays a wide array of statements that deal with severe distress, depression, anxiety, confusion and self-doubt. Whenever I read these types of Secrets I always wonder if that student is seeking help or if such a pervading number of distressful Secrets suggest that students are not able to or feel comfortable seeking help from the formalized structures on campus. I would suggest that the stigma surrounding issues of mental health held by students and faculty sustains at least part of this discomfort.
In my experience, Student Affairs is extremely supportive of students dealing with mental health problems, but this conversation and attitude needs to be disseminated to all members of our campus community.

While the administration, SGA and other offices have been proactive about funding and bolstering more wellness programs, maintaining a bevy of committees that deal with this issue—such as the Wellness Committee, Harm Reduction Committee and Committee on Student Life and providing spaces for student groups such as Active Minds to take part in this dialogue—the real key to confronting the stigma and the consequences of mental health issues is through self-governance. Our self-governing community, which is comprised of students, faculty, and staff, needs to be self-reflective about these types of struggles, which are often invisible.

Talking honestly about mental health is hard for everyone, because, in my opinion, all human beings go through some period of great distress and disillusionment with their lives. Mental health issues are hard to discuss because they are so jarring, so emotionally raw and so revealing of anxieties that could accompany that person for the rest of his or her life. I think that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to speak up when we observe self-harming behavior and to also be more self-reflective about our biases.

During our four years here, we build our lives in parallel and no matter how our future pans out, we are privileged with the knowledge that we all grew together in some way. In the end, being a Grinnellian means that we are part of an emotional web that is greater that we can imagine—it is much greater than ourselves and our lives. Being a Grinnellian is a sense of being that will envelope, influence, and guide us far beyond our time at Grinnell.

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