by GABRIELLA DEPINHO, News Editor
College students talk about their stress levels reaching new heights regularly, often sharing stories of pulling all-nighters, crying, drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee and looking forward to future weekend plans to forget the challenging week. This lifestyle is not unique to Manhattan College but it is certainly prevalent on the small campus. Students across America are getting more stressed out each passing year but a growing concern is whether or not conversations around mental health are changing. While Manhattan College has resources available to students with mental health needs, many feel conversations about mental health on campus need to change.
The most useful resource to students struggling with academic stress, social stress, a breakup, interpersonal problems or mental illnesses is tucked away in the top corner of Miguel Hall. The counseling center, with several full-time and part-time staff members available to students, can be found on the academic building’s fifth floor.
The irony of the center’s location in tandem with the often “hush-hush” attitude around mental health struggles is not lost on the center’s director, Jennifer McArdle.
“We’re here. Believe it or not, we have some seniors that are coming that say they didn’t even know we were here,” said McArdle.
Despite people often discovering the center for the first time, the center is constantly busy.
“We are [swamped with students]. We don’t have a very long waiting list right now,” said McArdle, who noted that the center sees a surge in student interest during midterms and finals weeks.
Students get connected to the center in a variety of ways, often from recommendations from friends or faculty, references made in JasperConnect or by the CARE Team, or by seeking out the services on their own. When students go to the center looking for services, they fill out intake paperwork and the center sets up an appointment for them as quickly as possible, doing their best to get the student seen within a week; some students need to be seen immediately.
“Once somebody indicates that they’re having a crisis, whether it be feeling suicidal, hearing things, being sexually assaulted, we see them right away. That means we may even have to reschedule one of our students, so we’re like an emergency room but we’re also a therapy office. We pretty much drop everything,” said McArdle.
For students who are victims of sexual assault, the counseling center is a confidential option where they can learn about reporting options. The only time counselors have a right to break confidentiality is if they believe a student is a harmful risk to themselves or others or if the student shares information about child or elderly physical or sexual abuse.
Manhattan College’s counseling center is one of 27 colleges in New York state that is accredited by the International Association of Counseling Services. In order to stay accredited, the center has to follow IACS recommendations regarding how it operates.
“Their recommendation is that a full-time clinician should not go over five students a day, for everyone’s sake. You don’t want to be the 12th person to have brain surgery that day. People get tired. It’s challenging work. It’s wonderful work, but to make sure that we don’t have staff burnout, that would negatively impact our clients, we keep it to four to five students a day,” said McArdle.
The counseling center does not only see students individually. The center offers group sessions, such as a college adjustment support group and KORU, a mindfulness and meditation group.
Nicol Zambrano, the center’s assistant director, leads the mindfulness group. KORU is a four week program that was developed at Duke University and that adapted mindfulness programs for adults to be for emerging adults.
“Mindfulness is something that can help with stress reduction, improving sleep, better decision making. There’s so much research on what it does and how it benefits people, but especially emerging adults, the needs are different. There’s a lot of stress, a lot of anticipation of what’s to come,” said Zambrano.
Running group programs also benefits the center.
“So we see four, five [students] a day, but if we can get 14 stressed out, anxious students to come for this mindfulness program and improve from it, that’s tremendous,” said McArdle.
Though there are limitations on just how much they can do, the counselors in the center do their best to accommodate students’ needs.
“As long as we don’t have a waiting list, which we don’t right now, we can continue to work with somebody if we see that they’re benefitting and improving with working with the counseling center. But we advertise it, when you come in you have to fill out the paperwork at the desk, it says we simply offer short-term counseling, so they know that we can’t do the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester every single semester,” said McArdle.
While this resource is available to students to seek out on their own, the counseling center is not isolated from the rest of the school. Faculty members can make referrals for students to see them. Residence Life staff is also prepared to help in the process of identifying students in need.
Full-time, part-time and student staff members of Residence Life go through training about mental health and what to do in different situations.
“Basically it is a series of best practices. We look at other institutions and what they’re doing and we combine that with what we need here,” said Toni Baisden who is the Area Coordinator for Lee Hall, as well as the residence life staff member who coordinates the training.
RAs are considerably on the front lines of identifying and addressing student needs.
“Generally, what we’re trying to train our RAs is designed about being first response. None of them are trained professionals in the arena of being a counselor. They’re more in the concept of identifying and doing their best duty to try to de-escalate a situation within their control. We do have a counselor on call, 24/7, that we have access to,” said Charles Clency, Director of Residence Life.
According to Baisden, training does not necessarily look the same from year to year.
“We do assessment of the training, both from the RAs and the full-time staff. We ask them about what things were helpful, what parts of training do they feel like they could use more time on,” said Baisden.
Alumna Kaitlyn Von Runnen’19, ran into at least one serious mental health situation during her time as an RA and often spoke with other RAs about their experiences. The incident she ran into was not a suicidal incident, but she knew other RAs who ran into those incidents. She spoke based on her personal experiences and based on what she had heard when speaking to other RAs on the job last year.
Von Runnen believes that the training Residence Life gives needs to be more expansive.
“We had a brief overview training during RA training of what to do during incidents, not necessarily specific mental health cases, just a list of procedures of this is what you should do if you come across it,” she said.
“I felt that what we were told to do did equip us, but I don’t know, because of my relationship with that resident, how I had known him, I did not necessarily know what was best to do with it being a mental health situation. I think not knowing specifically certain steps to take, aside from contacting senior staff and those protocols, I could have maybe ended up doing more harm than good to myself or someone else,” said Von Runnen. “We did have training, but mental health is just such a broad range that if [training] addresses just depression or just suicide, that’s not the end all there. There is so much more to deal with.”
According to Clency, past RAs have shared with him that the way situations were handled often left them feeling responsible and affected.
“Some of our students face things they’ve never seen before. Even though we talk through it during training and go through scenarios and coach them on what the next steps are in place in order to respond to it, to actually go through it and see it, it can be quite impactful,” he said.
Von Runnen, who was an RA both her junior and senior years and learned the ropes of the job well, still echoed that sentiment.
“I did feel it did take a toll in making me more anxious or more overwhelmed because there was a lot more responsibility. It’s hard when you’re listening to other people’s problems and you’re trying to help them but you’re a college student yourself and you’re trying to do all these things yourself,” she said.
Anytime a student shared with Von Runnen that they were struggling with a variety of issues, she would refer them to the counseling center, as well as a few other resources.
“I also found it helpful to recommend, I knew from my experience, professors that I thought were very in touch with the students or other people on campus who were in administrative roles, professor roles, like Father Tom, who was really good with students and would sit down and have a private conversation and keep it confidential, unless he needed to break confidentiality, so I recommended those people I knew through my experience I trust them,” said Von Runnen.
Despite finding the training a little non-comprehensive and conversations a bit mum on campus, Von Runnen feels the conversation around mental health opened up during her time at MC.
“As college went on, it became more of a thing that people would talk about and I think that’s great because there is a realization [that it’s important], the world realized that and I think Manhattan is starting to realize that, which is great. I would say that I feel there is always more you can do, there’s always more to talk about, more resources that can be given,” she said.
Von Runnen is not the only member of the Manhattan College community who feels that way. Student body president Kaylyn Atkins noted the same things Von Runnen did.
“Two topics, anxiety and depression, are things that we don’t talk about but I think so many of us have. I feel like if more of us talked about it and had conversations about it, we would know how to deal with it because it would also help people get past the whole generic way of dealing with self-love, doing face masks and stuff like that,” said Atkins.
“Like yes, I’m the face of the school, but I’m an ordinary person too. I think that a lot of people put me in a superhero role and I’m just like no, I have so many issues to deal with too,” she said.
Atkins’ administration, the Jasper State of Mind executive board, is working to promote self-love as a general theme throughout the year. VP of Residential Affairs, Luke Malpica, is working to coordinate stress relief and VP of Academic Affairs, Nadia Itani, is working to use her kNOw more events to promote self-love. Atkins hopes that the board can host more mental health focused events next semester.
One club that works year-round to talk and promote conversations about mental health is the Psychology club, which has many psychology majors as members, but is open to all students to join.
“Mental health is very real, it’s very important, there are stigmas attached to it and that’s why we’re here,” said Evaniz Orellana, vice president of the club.
The club, much like student government, also hosts a mental health awareness week before finals.
“Stress is one thing that contributes to mental illness. We try to get people to be aware and ask the people around them how they’re doing,” said club president Eva Bartsch.
The club advocates for students to know the resources available to them, hosts programs to talk about mental health and has worked with the counseling center to host programming.
“People really need to learn how to talk about it in terms of themselves rather than in just a general sense and talk about getting the help you need instead of just talking about it in a bigger picture,” said Bartsch. “It’s important to make people aware of the resources they have here and to utilize them when they need to.”
Despite all the work they do, the members of the Psych Club are aware of stigmas that exist around it, such as a fear that others might judge a person with mental illness or that a person with mental illness cannot be successful.
“It needs to be talked about. You can actually improve a lot on an academic level if you deal with your mental health and make sure that you’re healthy,” said Bartsch.
“On many college campuses, those stigmas come into the school. People will make jokes about it but this is not something to be joked about or laughed at. This is very serious. It impacts so many people on a traumatic level, a serious level,” said Orellana.
Despite the work that has been done so far, there is still work to be done to break down the stigmas around mental health.
“I really hope to see more conversations on this, from the president of the school himself, even. There needs to be more conversations on a bigger level. The psychology club has been trying to facilitate this work for years, but if people aren’t willing to facilitate these conversations on a bigger level, we’re not going to go anywhere or make change,” said Orellana.
Even the campus professionals have noticed the shift, though it is small.
“I think the stigma has reduced significantly, and that’s a good thing, a really good thing. I still think there’s some people that suffer with asking for help but I think more and more the stigma has been reduced. Students, they’re coming here, they’re looking for services,” said McArdle.
“We’ve come a long ways as far as stigma, but there’s still a long ways to go,” said Zambrano. “I think one of the biggest barriers is that it’s scary to come to therapy for the first time, to walk in and talk to a stranger about really tough stuff. It takes a lot of courage to walk up here, to walk in the door.”
As the Manhattan community plunges further into the semester with stressors piling up, students may find themselves stuck in the routine of late nights, too much coffee and too much work. While the silence of mental health conversations may be deafening on MC’s campus, students do not have to continue to repeat a cycle of stress and mental health burnout alone. There are resources available, even if no one is talking about it.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. If you or another member of the MC community is struggling with mental health issues, the counseling center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with evening appointments available if scheduled in advance.
Megan Dreher contributed reporting.