LifeShops Outreach Tools & Services
A Little History for a Lot of Context
I have a number of memories associated with the year 1996, when I was interviewing for my pre-doctoral internship, with all of my applications being to college or university counseling centers. I remember a couple of sites referencing outreach, emphasizing how important it was to make sure that students knew about the services offered, with one center actually acknowledging that increasing student utilization was tied to their remaining funded. I also remember applying what I learned in my undergraduate experience as an RA, noting how the counseling center part of our training always took such pains to emphasize that students could come “to talk about whatever they wanted” and how it didn’t mean they had to “be crazy” and how most students were not.
I also remember internship interviews usually including some variation of a particular question about the increased utilization and severity of presenting concerns noted across the country. I distinctly remember rehearsing the “good answer” ---showing my awareness that “more students are attending college than ever have because of improvements in psychotropic medication” and how this helped explain the dramatic increases. And, finally, I remember being cognizant that the surging multicultural movement mandated an active engagement of the healer with the communities that under-utilized services due to historical failures in mental health treatment to adequately understand and respect marginalized communities (except, the word "multicultural" was often employed rather than marginalized, as we were still learning, as a profession to acknowledge such things).
And so, the first decade of my career (and probably the career of most of my colleagues across the country) upheld an understood mandate to deliver a complex combination of messages to our campuses:
1)“Come, utilize our services, and don’t surrender to the stigma that says you have an illness or that you’re weak or crazy if you do… because we help students with the normal everyday challenges of college life.” 2)“We know that many students do struggle with mental illness and there’s no more shame in that than in having a physical illness because help is available. Come, utilize our services.” 3)“We are aware that many in our community suffer because you are different in some way from the majority of students, and this can be painful, lonely, scary and compromise your efforts toward success. Because we denounce racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of discrimination and injustice, we hope you consider us a helpful resource and utilize our services.” 4) “Since most of you in the campus community lack the necessary training, you have little way of knowing whether you are among those with everyday normal life challenges or have a diagnosable mental illness; therefore, it’s best not to help yourself or help a student you’re concerned about. Send them to utilize our services.”
In addition to all 4 of those messages being delivered, emphatically, for 2+ decades, they were all delivered with an additional and amplified message of re-assurance: “Our services are confidential. With the exception of very few circumstances, nobody will know what you’re struggling with or that you even sought help.”
So Here We Are
And now, we find ourselves in 2017, with the media alerting the world to the prevalence of depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Our world is far more aware of PTSD, and how it relates to other surfacing realities of child abuse, high prevalence sexual assault, and post-war realities of a new generation of veterans carrying trauma. These psychological realities are manifest most vividly in the colleges and universities that cost more and more to attend and contribute to the individual and collective economic threat of debilitating student-loan debt.
Professional staff in career services centers help carry the students’ burdens regarding the fears and aspirations of eventually landing employment sufficient to meet their pragmatic and romantic notions of success.
Our partners in various Leadership Development and Student Activities departments encounter students facing the stress of over-involvement, struggling to help the students engage in Self-Leadership at least once in a while toward self-care rather than the relentless resume building students engage in. Those in departments such as Residence Life and Greek Life and Student Activities are responsive to students who are engaged in conflicts, the pains of exclusion from social communities, suffering the consequences of poor judgment in student conduct, and the inevitable challenges in adjusting to the varying student development needs that engagement in Higher Education produces. Staff members in wellness centers attend to the physical and psychological dimensions of students’ struggles in their programming and educational endeavors. Even our colleagues in Academic Affairs, from the faculty to the various Deans, are invested in developing visions and missions and strategic plans to ensure that the students develop as intricate human beings that are prepared to handle the various challenges of life. It is obvious that all of these professionals often form caring mentoring relationships with students in the midst of psychological, social, and spiritual struggle.
What is, perhaps, less obvious, is that these arenas of student needs that our colleagues on campus address are ALSO likely to be identified as something that necessitates a referral to the campus counseling center.
Sometimes, all it takes is for these life realities and needs to emerge along with a tear in a single conversation, and the student is regarded as needing to talk to a professional. For decades, we have delivered some combination of those 4 messages to such a degree that we not only struggle with overwhelmed counseling centers and directors carrying an overwhelming burden of caring for all of these students, we seem to have forgotten that “needing to talk to a professional” can often involve other professionals on the college campus. It is clear that all campus life professionals are also overwhelmed by the increasing needs and demands of college students in an increasingly consumer-oriented landscape. What is not clear is that the mentoring they provide, they caring they offer, the conversations they hold and facilitate, the guidance they give, and the safety they provide are not only examples of “seeing a professional”, they are also examples of mental health service delivery on a college campus. Perhaps, we need to emphasize the message that the facilitation of a therapeutic experience does not have to be limited to a confidential 50-minute psychotherapy session.
Many centers work hard to narrate the caring and mentoring that is needed beyond the mental health sphere. Yet, this is not captured in the national dialogue obsessed with the crisis of increasing demands and pervasive anxiety and depression of college students. Perhaps, it’s time we start to broadcast, more adamantly, a concept of “mental health” as one that is more explicitly viewed as “Education” or “Mentoring” or, simply, “Caring.” From there, we can begin to elaborate more on how the scope of practice among campus partners needs to be expanded to include the caring, mentoring, supportive relationships that can also be therapeutic, without needing to be "therapy."
To be sure, there will always be students whose life experiences, from trauma and abuse histories to mental illness, need a licensed therapist. However, even for those students, the essence of healing has always been the quality of the therapeutic alliance. Perhaps, it’s time to amplify alternative messages, ones that don’t rely so much on a “recognize and refer” model of campus mental health, allowing a bit more of “recognize and relate.” Given that isolation is a common denominator for many, if not most, of the problems we see, we could use a mindset shift that embraces an increase in connection and emotional support across campus, one where the words "me,too" becomes a common response rather than a default that says, "You should go to the counseling center."
Who knows? We might deepen our understanding of what “mental health” is….and isn’t. We can find ways in our outreach, consultation, and our individual therapy sessions to promote deepening and potentially healing relationships, all across the campus community. From there, perhaps a new model can emerge that allows all dimensions of student development to be as broad as Education is, as deep as Character Building is, and as healing and therapeutic as Life, in and of itself, can be. We'll still say, "Come, utilize our services." We'll just be able to include the campus counseling center among a broader list of options.
In addition to (and overlapping with) students with these psychological problems, there are also the myriad other students utilizing our services. There are those who are confused about what to major in, feeling excluded after not receiving bids to join the popular Greek Life on campus, struggling with fear and grief associated with parents who have announced they are divorcing, barely willing to participate in life due to the despairing disbelief of an ended romance, confused about why they keep procrastinating and lack motivation to do their school work instead of playing video games, or feeling shame about not yet having a job a mere 8 weeks before graduation...
And all of these are in addition to or overlapping with the students enduring daily micro-aggressions... those suffering the micro and macro wounds of stereotype threats facing students of color, those students feeling the impending doom of their parents threatening to disown or kill them for being LGBQ or transgender, the women carrying the painful rage of another friend being sexually assaulted or enduring another STEM class experience in which she is made to feel invisible. Increasingly, there are also privileged students coming into awareness of their privilege and confused with guilt and powerlessness about not knowing how to be supportive of their friends who endure daily oppression....
Mental Health Professionals
So, I ponder all of this, now in the role, for the first time, as a Director of a college counseling center, after 2 decades focusing on being a clinician or a training director or, most of the time, an outreach director.
While I always felt some of this weight, it’s clear now that, as a director, I’m the one on campus that is identified as most directly associated with this problem. I lead a staff of professionals who have been identified as “mental health professionals” in a world of college campuses in which, it seems, we have persuaded our communities to view every kind of struggle as a mental health problem. And the staff members in these centers increasingly experience this quagmire of being recognized as both the solution and the problem. Perhaps only those mental health professionals very early in their careers have not heard their clients express deep appreciation while admitting, “I could never do what you do for a living, listening to people’s problems all day.” Meanwhile, these same professionals are targeted with complaints and unflattering media attention about their failure to meet the demands of students, accused of forcing students to wait for weeks or months for the service they so desperately need.
We're Not Completely Alone
It's not that our partners in other departments or arenas of the campus aren’t part of the support network.
Obviously, professional staff in identity centers are absorbing the pain of students struggling with discrimination, marginalization, micro-aggressions, stereotype-threat, and institutional racism... not to mention sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, classism, and an ever-growing list of ways that our society is coming to terms with pervasive struggles related to social injustice.
I lead a staff of professionals who have been identified as “mental health professionals” in a world of college campuses in which, it seems, we have persuaded our communities to view every kind of struggle as a mental health problem.