Counseling center sees record numbers
In the past few years, the Bowdoin Counseling Services has seen a dramatic increase in the number of students who seek counseling treatment.
According to Bob Vilas, director of counseling, "In the second half of the '90s, more students started coming in-we were averaging around 250 students every year. Since 2000, it took another jump up toward 280. Last year we saw 318. This fall alone we saw 214 students."
These numbers are much greater than the average of 225 students a year that the office saw in between 1990 and 1995. Vilas said, "we're almost seeing now, in a semester, as many people as we saw in a year."
Students who seek counseling come for a period of time ranging anywhere from one session to the whole year. For the 2001-2002 academic year, counseling services recorded a total of 1900 sessions. In the late 1990's that number averaged 1300 sessions.
In terms of people seeking psychiatric help, Vilas said, "In the mid-'90s we would have about ten people a year come in for consults with psychiatrists for medication, last year we had 93 come in. That's almost a 900 percent increase."
Concerning the increase in students, Vilas acknowledged that the office is "seeing more people who have higher levels of stress-more people have disabling depression and anxiety, more people who are having to take psychologically-related medical leave, more people who need to be hospitalized for a time." He said, "the volume has just been turned out all around."
Vilas cited depression and anxiety, in many instances stemming from family problems, as the main issues that students come in with. He also noted that the office saw many students seeking treatment for eating disorders.
"Ironically, a lot of family stuff gets stirred up when people leave home finally. Think about what college is-you show up and live in tiny rooms with people you don't know, you get a lot of work dumped on your head, you're supposed to function socially. You can say that real life is harder than that, but in a way, we're in this little hot house and it's a really stressful environment. It has some great pluses to it-but it does require a lot of resilience."
Vilas attributed many factors to the rise in students seeking counseling, affirming, "this is a nationwide trend. The whole culture is more therapy oriented-the seeking of therapy has been largely de-stigmatized."
Relating therapy within the context of a competitive college, Vilas reflected, "overall it feels like people are increasingly showing up who have been on this performance track from an early age-people have become disconnected from themselves. They have become really good soldiers at getting things done."
He suggested that student problems take root even before students arrive at Bowdoin. "A lot people are burned out by the time they get here," Vilas said. "They feel like they've done all this stuff, and now they're ready for something different. Some people are so used to compulsively doing things that they've lost any sense of meaning and purpose."
He also attributed that this success track to inculcating a great fear of failure in students. "There's the sense you can't afford to screw up because it is such a competitive world. But at the same time feeling that you want something more," he added.
Vilas contrasted this attitude with that of earlier generations. "This sense of competition is really different from the way things were, even back in the 80's-this culture of success phenomenon has hit a critical mass point in the last few years."
Some students begin to feel suicidal if they end up making mistakes, because, as Vilas noted, "they feel there is so much at stake in every success or failure."
He also acknowledged that the national mood, as a result of 9/11 and the war, has had an effect on the rise in counseling. "People don't come in and say 'I'm upset about the war," he explained, "but it creates a sort of energy field that we are all living in that really has a lot of anxiety attached to it."
In order to accommodate the growing number of students who use their services, the counseling staff "has grown some," said Vilas.
In addition to adding a part time counselor and consulting psychiatrist, Vilas said, "we're also just working harder to get people in-to spend more hours around the edges. It's a little daunting-again we're going to set another record this year. But if the demand keeps growing we may have to add some sort of session limit, but we haven't gotten there yet."
When asked about his opinion of the increase in students seeking counseling, Vilas said, "it's great that people who need help are seeking it-but I'm disturbed that so many people need [it]. The thing that would make me happiest, I guess, is that we go out of business so that nobody needs us. But I don't think that's going to happen any time soon."