University News

Panel tackles mental health in college

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A panel of four professors and administrators discussed the stresses of college, coping strategies, mental health stigmas and resources available to University students Monday night in front of a large, attentive audience in MacMillan 115. The teach-in was designed to explore mental health issues and raise awareness of resources available to students.

“We hope that by having events such as these, we can begin a conversation that will help eradicate the stigma that oftentimes prevents people from seeking the help they need,” said moderator Jessica Biesel, president of student volunteers for the Samaritans of Rhode Island, a suicide prevention and resource center and sponsor of this event.

The panel opened by discussing stressors that are new or unique to the college experience. Students and families can struggle to come to terms with the academic pressures at Brown, said Belinda Johnson, director of psychological services. Students can experience difficulty as they pull away from their parents or begin to see them from an adult perspective, said Carol Landau ’70, clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior. More and more, students face social class issues, added Maria Suarez, associate dean in the Office of Student Life.

Mistakes such as sleep disruption, self-medication with comfort food or alcohol and a lack of exercise also “can have a cumulative lifestyle effect” on college students, Landau said.

“Some people sail through fine” even though they make such mistakes, Landau said. “Other people, especially those who are predisposed to depression, might find that just those issues alone can make things a lot worse.”

Self-esteem and mattering – the extent to which a person believes he or she makes a difference in the world around them – are closely linked to mental health, and lacking either can lead to a “sharply descending pit of misery,” said Gregory Elliott, professor of sociology.

“(Mattering) is the strongest motivation inside the human being,” Elliott said. “The notion that you don’t matter to anyone is a horrifying notion, and it is unbearable.”

This year, the University was named the third happiest college in the country, according to the Princeton Review. But this statistic can actually worsen a student’s depression, Johnson said. People think they should be happy at Brown, but nobody is happy all of the time, she explained. “It’s an isolating thing,” she said.

The University offers a number of resources for students struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic disorders, eating disorders or substance abuse. Brown has long offered medical leave to students for a variety of reasons, Suarez said. When students go on medical leave, their academic standing is preserved, and their transcripts are simply marked with “leave of absence,” Suarez added. The University can also help students approach faculty members for incompletes and extensions. Most faculty are understanding and accommodating of students’ struggles, she said.

“Our faculty are terrific,” Suarez said. “There’s not one of us who hasn’t been 20 or 25. There’s not one of us who hasn’t been in college. There’s not one of us that hasn’t had a breakup, that hasn’t failed an exam, that hasn’t had the dog die at home.”

Along with University resources, Landau said she recommended “active therapies” to break or prevent the cycle of depression.

“Social engagement or social support is one of the most well documented … buffers to stress,” Landau said. “Scan your social horizon for someone who is a potential friend. Scan your social horizon for an interest that matters to you. … These are all active things that you can do to push against the mental health problems.”

The panelists’ discussion was followed by a brief Q&A session with members of the audience.

Brandon Almy ’12, a psychology concentrator, said he attended the event because he is interested in the mental health aspects the panel discussed as they relate to students.

“From a psych perspective, you kind of go through all of these courses getting a really theoretical background about depression and other feelings and mental health in general,” Almy said, adding that the panel portrayed these same issues but focused on how they relate to Brown students. “You think about the Brown experience in terms of being open and stuff like that, but I’ve never really thought of it in terms of what it means for mental health.”

Ultimately, an open discussion of mental health can help students feel comfortable about voicing their depression, seeking the help they need and changing the social stigma of mental health issues, Johnson said.

“Life is stressful. We all have vulnerabilities. Things happen,” Landau said. “This should not be stigmatized. It really is all of us, in one way or another.”