Whitman students seek counseling services twice as often as those from other schools

Nate Lessler

Credit: Loos-Diallo

Six unconnected suicides at Cornell University this year have prompted national media coverage of mental illness among college students and investigations into the ways campuses are addressing the problem.  While Whitman students utilize college counseling services much more frequently than students from other colleges and universities, counselors stress that students at Whitman do not experience mental illness any differently from their peers.

“I don’t think our students are sicker, I really don’t,” said Rich Jacks, an associate dean of students and a director of health and wellness at Welty Health Center.

According to Jacks, 25 percent of Whitman students signed up for regular counseling sessions at the health center during 2009. Yet in a national survey of counseling center directors, the American College Counseling Association found that 10.4 percent of all college students, or 270,000 students out of 2.6 million sampled, actively sought counseling at their schools during the 2008-2009 academic year. Whitman offers free counseling services to students.

Though Whitman students seek counseling twice as frequently as peers from other schools, Jacks commented that many schools’ resources are not as visible or accessible as those at Whitman, and may not be free, discouraging many people from seeking help.

“I think this is a caring, supportive environment and counseling is more common here and people are more willing to utilize resources in this environment,” he said.

According to Jacks, 20 percent of students going to the counseling center do so for depression, a higher percentage than any other cause.  Relationship issues: including problems with family, friends and boyfriends or girlfriends: is second. However, Jacks stresses that although students cite depression as the most common reason for counseling,  the majority of counseling cases do not address major mental health problems.

“Most of what people come in with are not serious mental health issues but generally more developmental issues that they would probably survive on their own if they didn’t come in,” Jacks said. “But hopefully by coming in they deal with things quicker and less painfully.”

Jacks said that statistics on the nature of counseling services at Whitman College are not always reflective of students’ actual experience because some students with mental health issues do not seek out help.

“There is no way to get stats on people who don’t access any kind of resource . . .   there are many reasons [why someone might not take advantage of resources],” said Jacks. “There is kind of a stigma of asking for help.  Especially in the western part of this country, there is this sense of a pioneer spirit . . . that you should be able to fix [your problems] yourself, you shouldn’t have to ask for help.”

First-year Lillian Bailey, a peer listener, echoed Jacks’ thoughts about such a stigma but said that on the Whitman campus, it is often associated more with the idea of going to a counseling center than with asking for help.

“There is a huge stigma for most people of going [to the Counseling Center],” Bailey said. “It’s tough to admit that you have issues that need to be worked out.”

Nonetheless, the availability of free counseling and student resources such as peer listeners has resulted in more students seeking out help for issues that plague thousands of college students every year.

“I think it’s a combination of more people knowing about the counseling resources available on campus and people feeling freer to exercise that option,” said first-year Jonas Myers. “We live in a world that is becoming friendlier towards the idea of people talking about their inner feelings and emotions.”