A record number of students sought the help of Counseling Services last semester, when counselors held 1,823 appointments with 291 students, compared to 1,282 counseling sessions with 259 students last fall.
Bernie Hershberger, director of counseling services, said that roughly 45 percent of students visit counseling during their time at Bowdoin, and, in any given year, 25 percent do so. Larger colleges and universities see approximately eight percent of their students in a year, according to Hershberger.
Of the 544 respondents to the Orient’s survey of drug use and mental health, 152 students reported that they had received counseling at Bowdoin since the start of the academic year. Twenty-six students reported seeking counseling elsewhere.
Their reasons for seeking help were varied. Six percent said they sought help for dealing with substance abuse, 10 percent with eating disorders, 58 percent with depression, 68 percent with anxiety, 51 percent with stress, 34 percent with relationships, and 5 percent with issues of gender and sexual identity.
Several students who have received counseling at Bowdoin agreed to speak to the Orient on the condition of anonymity; their names have been changed to protect their identies.
Jane is a sophomore who began suffering from anxiety during the summer between high school and college. Eventually, her anxiety began to manifest itself physically, so Jane decided to go to Counseling Services.
“I was having compulsive twitching. If I was really stressed or really tired, my hands and arms would move,” she said. “At first it was really weird. Then it was really annoying. I was worried that people would see.”
Over time, the twitching turned into something more serious.
“I started having panic attacks. All freshman fall, I was having panic attacks. I didn’t know what was triggering it,” Jane said.
Hershberger says that anxiety has become increasingly common in the last decade.
“We’re seeing a lot more students with anxiety issues and concerns,” he said. “The primary issue in the past would be depression.”
Hershberger said that because of how the Millennial Generation grew up, it faces pressures and expectations that prior generations had not
“In your generation more than any others, often families have gotten smaller, so instead of three or four kids in the family, there are one or two kids,” he said. “I think that always puts more pressure on the one or two kids."
Hershberger said many students were overscheduled when they were younger, and that downtime was a rarity. After frantic and successful high school years, he said, students arrive at Bowdoin with very high standards.
“There’s just a lot of pressure. Some of that comes from the privilege students feel that they’ve gotten in terms of their life,” Hershberger said. “Their parents have done all these things for them and they should now take that and do something really amazingly spectacular.”
This is part of what Hershberger called the “externalization of happiness”—deriving satisfaction exclusively from achieving goals like earning high grade point average or getting a prestigious internship.
Hershberger said that this externalization can lead to dangerous levels of stress and anxiety.
“Stress itself is not a problem but if you don’t have sustained, consistent recovery periods from stress it becomes distress, and it becomes a problem,” he said.
Procedures and problems
When Catherine, a sophomore with depression, tried to see a counselor last spring, she found it difficult to make an appointment.
“They were like, ‘Yeah we’re kind of busy, we’ll try squeeze you in.’ It was very causal,” she said. “I guess it depends on what they see as the severity of your issue.”
Over the summer, Catherine received a diagnosis and began taking antidepressants. In the fall, she was able to book an appointment at Counseling Services.
“It was a lot easier once I was like ‘Yeah, I’ve been diagnosed with depression,’” she said.
Jane recalled having a similar problem, but said she was able to make an appointment for a future date.
“It was two and a half weeks; it was not a short amount of time,” she said.
Hershberger said his staff can only see a certain number of students a day, and that as the year goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to make an appointment.
He said that a part-time counselor recently added another day to her weekly schedule in order to help Counseling Services meet students’ demand, but that his staff still needs to prioritize.
“We want to make sure that if someone is really struggling, that they’re not waiting for more than a couple of days,” Hershberger said. “There are times when we triage a bit, and we might actually say, given five students, two of these students have problems that are of the magnitude that we have to get them in first.”
Hershberger said that most students have only three or four counseling sessions, but other students stay with Counseling Services for far longer. If their issues prevent them from completing schoolwork for long periods of time or pose safety concerns, their counselors might encourage them to consider a medical leave.
“We really have the students take the lead on whether they want to take the leave,” said Margaret Hazlett, senior associate dean of student affairs, who oversees Health Services and Counseling Services.
Catherine said she did not find that to be the case. She said she had a positive relationship with her counselor throughout the fall, and felt like she was in a good place. Then on the first Friday of spring semester, Catherine went to Health Services, where she was told—to her surprise—that she had an eating disorder.
Catherine said Health Services called her dean and her mother, and insisted that she take a medical leave.
“They didn’t ask about what I wanted. They didn’t ask for my permission or what my interests were or if I felt safe on this campus, but they told me I wasn’t a safe member of this campus,” Catherine said.
Catherine said that once her counselor was included in the conversation, the group decided that she could stay on campus, but she was still upset by the lack of communication between Health Services, Counseling Services and the Dean’s office.
“The health center and counseling center sometimes seem like they are at war about mind versus body,” she said. “One treats the mind and one treats the body, and they don’t see that they’re really just treating one person.”
Hazlett said that discussions about medical leaves do not come as surprises to students.
“In my sixteen-year experience, it’s never been a surprise to a student. Now whether a student hears it as such, that’s another question,” she said.
Hershberger said that because of their different functions, conflict does sometimes arise between Health Services and counseling.
“There’s a little bit of a tension that way,” he said. “But that’s actually a good tension. I think that students need that because you don’t want to feel like your councilor is going to the side of the administration and not support you.”
Hershberger said despite these differences, there is generally cooperation between the various services at the College.
“In general if we have divisions or differences, we start getting to the bottom of it pretty quickly,” he said.
Mental health stigma
Sophomore Samantha went to counseling last spring when she was struggling with her sexual identity. She said she had a highly positive experience with Counseling Services, but initially struggled to accept that she needed help.
“You don’t think that you need counseling services until something kind of drastic happens,” she said.
Samantha said that Bowdoin students are reluctant to betray weakness—and said that going to counseling can be misconstrued as a weakness.
“Kids at Bowdoin in high school are in the elite class, but when you put all of those people together, you feel like it looks bad to show that kind of weakness or have to lean on someone,” she said.
Students do not receive mental health help exclusively at Counseling Services, however.
“Mental health is not the counseling center’s domain,” Hershberger said.
Jane said she spoke with Kate Stern, director of the resource center for gender and sexual diversity, about her anxiety. Catherine said the McKeen Center acted as a source of counseling for her.
Hershberger said that last year a housekeeper saw a student heading to class in tears. The housekeeper spoke with the student, who admitted that she had thought about just walking out into traffic.
The housekeeper spoke to her supervisor and a counselor was waiting for the student when she left class. Hershberger said that this story says a lot about the Bowdoin community and its approach to mental health.
“There are so many people on campus who care about students,” he said.