This is an exciting time to be in the field of college mental health. The work is challenging and deeply rewarding on many levels. As counselors, we are particularly fortunate to be part of a vibrant campus community with so many other faculty and staff committed to student learning and development. Although our job descriptions and roles vary widely, I believe that we all share a passion for helping students navigate their respective university experiences as safely and as fully as possible. The diverse relationships that students share with others in the Elon University community are at the heart of academic and social learning and growth. This common thread of teaching, mentoring, caring and support go a long way toward making this university truly “student-centered.”

As counselors, we often get to know students when they feel overwhelmed, disconnected, highly stressed or anxious, lost or any of a broad range of experiences that typically fall under the heading of “college mental health.” The problems vary greatly in severity, intensity and duration as well as the context where they occur (with roommate, family, teacher, coach, significant other, etc.)

As the academic bar has been raised, students are often struggling with different kinds of expectations and demands, pressures to “fit in,” identity struggles and worries about people they care about as well as global concerns such as the recent terrorist activities in France and elsewhere. The most frequently presented concern is anxiety, closely followed by depression. Typically if someone remains anxious or highly stressed for long enough, depression will occur as well. Just as a point of reference, about 10-14 percent of the entire student body will have at least one visit to see a counselor in any given academic year.

In discussions about student mental health, people often raise concerns about “stigma” and other barriers to help-seeking behavior. These are real concerns. One doesn’t have to reach too far back into this country’s history of mental health “treatment” to learn about the often cruel and bizarre ways that people who were experiencing depression, psychosis or even trauma-related symptoms were “treated.” See Lee Smith’s novel “Guests on Earth” for a powerful account of one of the hospitals in North Carolina.

Stigmas related to seeking help for mental health issues remain embedded and institutionalized in our culture perhaps more than we realize. How many movies or TV shows have portrayed those with mental health issues and therapists in a negative or otherwise disrespectful light? A prevailing message that is often transmitted overtly and covertly is that those who experience mental health problems or seek help for them are somehow “weak.” A great amount of shame is often attached to anyone suffering emotionally, despite the fact that none of us is immune from the wear and tear of life struggles, loss, trauma, disappointment or feeling overwhelmed at any point in time.

We are all wired to be social and require secure social attachments to develop, as well as to mitigate the negative effects of stress, trauma, disappointment, illness — the assorted demands that are around us. One need only consider the recent gathering of friends on behalf of the loss of a beloved student to feel the healing power of supportive relationships. 

One of my favorite neuroscientists is Louis Cozolino. His latest book is entitled, “Why Therapy Works.” He is solidly optimistic and writes that “our brains are capable of change at any time and social interactions are the primary source of brain regulation, growth and health.”

Various neuroscientists now have extensive research to demonstrate what the Red Cross and others have practiced for years — that compassionate presence is perhaps the most powerful healing ingredient of all. Many have written to support the notion that relationships are at the core of healing and transformation. I read that there are more than 500 different types of therapies. When all the variables are considered, the factor that accounts for the greatest efficacy of change is the quality of the relationship (as rated by the participant) between the patient and therapist. Certainly we all have much work to do to link suffering, overwhelmed, distressed, perhaps even hopeless people to appropriate resources in the face of the stigmas and barriers that still persist. Remembering what Thomas Szasz said some time ago, “Psychotherapy is primarily a relationship between two people.”

Good luck on finals and please get in touch with one of us at Counseling Services if we can be of assistance.

Bruce Nelson is Director of Counseling Services at Elon University.