Though in a newly-released national survey college freshmen rated their emotional health at a record low, Psychological Services has not seen a significant change in visits from first-year students, Director of Psych Services Belinda Johnson said.
At the start of this academic year, Psych Services hired a new psychotherapist. The decision was partially a response to a 2009 New England Association of Schools and Colleges reaccreditation report, which criticized the University's psychological support resources compared to those of its peers, The Herald reported in September.
The addition to the staff "has certainly improved our ability to serve students because a new position makes you more available," Johnson said. "What will be most interesting to see in the end of the year is if we're seeing more students than we had in previous years. It's still too early to tell though," she said.
Johnson added that the main reason for hiring another psychotherapist was to increase the number of free sessions available to students from five to seven per year.
The national Higher Education Research Institute survey, based on responses from 201,818 first-year students at 279 different colleges, showed that fewer students perceived their emotional health "was in the ‘highest 10 percent' or ‘above average' when compared to their peers," according to the research brief. The survey has been distributed to college freshmen for the last 45 years, said Linda DeAngelo, assistant director for research for the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, which administered the survey.
In the most recent survey, the percentage of students reporting their emotional health as above average dropped from 55.3 percent in 2009 to 51.9 percent in 2010, according to the research brief. Freshmen are surveyed when they first enter college, DeAngelo said, so results reflect how students felt when first entering school.
"We see in our study that students expect to be satisfied with college," DeAngelo said. But she said many students feel pressure and anxiety about "making the most of their college experiences." Specifically, the survey showed two-thirds of freshmen had financial concerns that had influenced their choice of school.
DeAngelo said in recent years universities have "really started to increase the wellness services they offer to students."
Over the past five years, Psych Services has seen roughly 17 percent of the student body each year, Johnson said. In comparison, half that many students used the University's psychological resources in 1985.
The greater availability of resources is not the only factor that has driven the increase, Johnson said. "Since 1985, culturally — not just at Brown — there has been more attention given to mental health," she said.
Johnson said Psych Services tries to make first-years aware of available resources by participating in orientation activities and providing information to residential peer leaders.
Over the past five years, Johnson said she has not seen any major changes in the concerns students bring with them when they visit Psych Services. She said that though more students feel pressure and anxiety regarding jobs because of the economic recession, the number is not large.
Additionally, when students first go to Psych Services, they are asked whether they have seen a counselor before coming to Brown. Johnson said they have been collecting this information for the past six years and the percentage has not changed.
Johnson said the national survey involves self-reports from freshmen about their emotional health compared to how they perceive their peers' emotional well-being. The results are a measure of perceived emotional health, rather than an evaluation of students' actual mental states.
Brown regularly tops the Princeton Review's annual list of colleges with the "Happiest Students." But having the happiest students is not the same as having the student body with the highest level of emotional well-being.
"One common theme, that I would guess is somewhat specific to Brown, is that students tend to assume that everyone around them has it together, and that they are the only one experiencing any sort of distress," said Remy Fernandez-O'Brien '12, a residential counselor in Littlefield House. "This of course is not true, but it does seem to make people less likely to seek help when they could benefit from it."
"People don't necessarily want to specifically label what's going on with them, but they are often motivated to make things better for themselves," Fernandez-O'Brien added. "Because of this, in many cases I'll recommend a specific person that I know, in Psych Services or another department, whom I know to be particularly helpful."
"I do believe that Brown students are happier on average than students at other universities," Johnson said. "So you get this phenomenon that students who are feeling bad feel cheated or are reluctant to let other students know they are feeling bad because they feel out of the ordinary."