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"...What You Do For a Living"
The dominant narrative of college mental health in recent years is increasingly defined by alarming headlines of a mental health crisis, with counseling centers struggling to keep up with the demand for services. As a therapist in a college counseling center, I’d always welcome more therapists to help carry the load. However, I also wonder what we might gain from a more nuanced consideration of what therapy on a college campus is and can be, beyond simply a clinic treating students for the mental health issues that are the cause for such alarm. In particular, I’m curious how a better understanding of what happens in those therapy sessions might inform campuses, overall, about student struggle…especially on those campuses emphasizing interdisciplinary learning and mandates to translate learning into everyday life.
As simply a therapist, I might tend to defer to academic advisors and other campus professionals to attend to academic issues and experiences. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that an inter-disciplinary mindset should not be limited to academic coursework. I have much more to offer as an Educator/Therapist than simply as a counselor. This duality of professional identity helps me hold on to the critical observation that many of our clients' psychological struggles may also represent academic struggle.
A somewhat common observation is that students with psychological struggles do not recognize the significance of this struggle until it begins to take a toll on their academic engagement. This is not only true, however, in the sense that motivation is lost and students find themselves not following through with their academic responsibilities, which leads to a crisis reaction that counselors end up addressing. It is also true in that psychological distress can negatively impact the cognitive functioning needed to succeed in academic endeavors. Most therapists would likely agree that clients also routinely become trapped in the thought-dichotomies that maintain an anxiety, depressive or other psychological disorders which impact their mental health. Naturally, this would also impact their writing, exam-taking, and class participation.
With that in mind, it seems quite relevant to more actively own this dual professional identity of Educator/Therapist. One way to manifest this would be to more intentionally and more routinely inquire what classes our clients are taking. It becomes fruitful to ask what this or that particular class focused on this week, as we “check in” with how they have been since the last counseling session. I can’t help but wonder if there is an infinity of contextual possibilities in our clients’ assignments and class lectures that can inform and be informed by the issues they bring into therapy
Such professors provide students (particularly those marginalized in society) with a systemic perspective that allows them to not only reduce internalized self-loathing but to also experience empowerment as they locate their struggles in larger ecological machinery where they can engage in activism if they so choose.
The Humanities offers a whole range of possibility in the integration of academic engagement and counseling sessions. I am most poignantly reminded that I hold an Educator/Healer lens when my clients express their disbelief in my work as they often utter the phrase, I could never do what you do for a living, listening to people’s problems all the time. It has become such a common experience that my response would feel packaged if it did not remain so deeply true. I simply share that I was not a psychology major in college. Rather, I majored in English. I go on to explain that I don’t experience myself as “listening to people’s problems all the time.” I experience my job as having the opportunity to listen to novels, short stories, poems, and essays, from an infinity of unique human beings, and that my learning as an undergraduate informs my work as much as, if not more than, my doctoral training in psychology. I go on to elaborate that the creative writing assignments of my undergraduate years taught me to fully appreciate the processes of expression, including those occurring in therapy sessions. I acknowledge that expression can be exhausting and, sometimes, painful, but it is always fulfilling as long as we trust that we’re always learning and always growing, even when it hurts.
Routinely, I encounter anxiety-ridden students who hadn’t made the connection that the debates inherent in Machiavelli’s The Prince around governing mirrored their own daily process of self-governing. The most common example is considering whether fear or love was the optimal guide in deciding how to rule their own lives. Without asserting my stance on this, I observed students re-access their cognitive complexity to ponder how much fear guides their lives, prompted by a choice that was actually first introduced to the student in a class reading assignment. Suddenly, a session to address "anxiety" becomes a conversation about "fear" and its many forms and functions in a student's life.
About a year ago, I implemented my fairly routine invitation with clients to re-consider whether certainty and control were absolutely necessary all the time, a common therapy theme for college students. I became quite animated with excitement to learn from one particular student, “You sound like my physics professor,” as she recounted having learned about the Uncertainty Principle associated with someone named Heisenberg. Having lasted only 20 minutes before dropping physics as an undergraduate, I had no idea uncertainty was a physics construct. However, seeing how much credibility this provided to my intervention with this therapy-skeptical student, it’s now a question in my tool box that has been useful many times.
At a recent staff meeting, recognizing how often particular faculty members' names emerged in our various sessions with students, our clinical staff joked about adding these professors to our payroll. Most notably, students routinely referenced a professor of a Women’s and Gender Studies course discussing issues with students in striking parallel to the explorations in therapy sessions.
A few years ago, a student make this same observation but in a more poetic way. Harsh as it was, it also prompted me to reflect on receiving the beautiful work I am privileged to do--- while considering her own way of imagining my work of helping her peers. Her way of narrating what I do reflected a larger tendency to assign a negative connotation, if not a hostile one, to the experience of encountering human beings who are struggling. In both "mental health" and "education" we have much work to do in reclaiming at least some of the authorship regarding the narratives of our vocation, to have some say in what we offer and what our students receive.
When I share how my undergraduate experience informs my work today, from how I listen to music and enjoy movies to providing therapy, I often begin to hear confessions from some STEM majors about their secret wish to study something in the Humanities. However, these are typically not counseling sessions in which their choice of major or career aspirations is the focus of our conversations. These are typically sessions focused on racing thoughts that lead to sleep deprivation, the perpetual insecurities when interacting with peers, or the many layers involved in an episode of binge eating. What occurs in these moments is, in all likelihood, not a eureka insight into therapy issues. Rather, it is a radical moment of shifting to a more idealistic but potentially pragmatic way of re-thinking their approach to college....and life.
Of course, I have no illusions that therapists simply incorporating academic references into their therapy sessions will solve the mental health crisis. At issue, however, is how we think about “mental health issues” and, by extension, how we think about Education. To the same degree that a therapist can link academic material and experiences, from course content to grading practices to discussions on pedagogy ---professionals across our higher education institutions can re-ignite their curiosity about what these demanding, liability-increasing, and costly issues referred to as "mental health problems" are really about. From there, the tendency to simply refer students to counseling services to have their problems attended to there may evolve into a more truly interdisciplinary approach to Education, as we courageously revisit what Education is all about, even in this world of high student loan debt and colleges fighting for financial survival.
Perhaps an early and practical step is to narrow the distance between what we consider Academic Affairs and what gets called Student Affairs or Campus Life. From there, we may see a bit more than we imagined of how student mental health issues are merely manifestations of larger patterns and systemic forces. When we begin to see the parallels between the students mental health issues and the stressors facing any member of the faculty, staff, or the institution itself, we may not only alleviate student suffering but also restore the ideals of Education's missions. There is, certainly, some specific expertise in the counseling centers to help students dealing with trauma and tragedy. But the numbers they arrive in, most described as having the vague problems of "depression" and "anxiety" suggest there is more here than their individual impairments at play. In all these ivory towers, there must be some expertise and wisdom to guide us through all of these endeavors, still vulnerable to the corrupting forces of competitiveness and isolating pursuits of excellence, but also able to re-imagine this challenge toward truly reaping the benefits of Learning.
"I couldn't do what you do for a living," she said, "having people throw sadness at you all day long."