Small liberal arts colleges are essentially a recipe for mental illness and emotional distress: take 1500 young adults, remove them from their homes, cram them onto small campuses and subject them to extreme academic and social pressures until everything comes to a boil. Grinnell is not only a small school, but a secluded, rural one, putting Grinnellians at especially high risk for mental health related problems.
A study conducted last semester by the College’s Mental Health Review Committee revealed that within the academic year 2006-2007, 22 percent of Grinnell students reported having been diagnosed with depression, compared with only 16.8 percent of students at other small colleges and 15.3 percent nationally. The study also revealed that the number of Grinnellians who reported their academic performances being impacted by various kinds of stress was higher than the average number of students facing similar problems in other small colleges or national universities.
“Grinnell is a school with a rich academic history, and thus tends to attract high -achieving people who have been successful all their lives,” said Houston Dougharty, vice president of Student Affairs. “Therefore, when they find themselves in a pool of such rigorous competition, and sky-rocketing expectations from the professors, they get stressed out. It takes time for them to settle into such an intensely academic environment and hence they face stress related issues.”
To support students in coping with the various stresses of college life, Grinnell College Health Services offers free walk-in counseling Monday through Friday, as well as the opportunity for students to make regular appointments with one of the walk-in staff, or someone else from the Poweshiek County Mental Health Center (PCMHC).
One of the main shortcomings of Grinnell’s mental health services, according to some students, is that although they do offer on campus counseling, all of the counselors working in the College Health Center are from the PCMHC. “The fact that there aren’t one or two psychiatrists on staff is pretty ridiculous to me,” said Emma Lawler ’09. “[We need someone] for this campus, chosen by this campus,” she added, noting that she feels this way, “Especially because of my lack of confidence in the hospital here”
The report published by the Review Committee highly recommended that the College hire its own set of counselors, but Grinnell’s size has made this step somewhat difficult. “Because we are a small college, to some extent, we need to rely on the PCMHC,” Dougharty said.
As a first step towards someday becoming more self-sufficient, the College hired Alecia Sundsmo to act as a liaison between the College and PCMHC. Sundsmo works with four other counselors who work 47 hours a week at the College Health Center.
“Alecia is here for emergency walk-ins and follow ups,” saidKaren Cochran, director of health services. According to Cochran, one of the problems the staff had with walk-in appointments was that many students came back for particular counselors and there were sometimes long queues. “There has been a great improvement in efficiency this semester,” Cochran said. “Since Alecia joined us, there have not been too many complaints. When the mid-semester exams were going on, we handled it really well this time.”
By hiring Sundsmo, the College has begun the process of improving the counseling system on campus. “The College Counseling is in transition to meeting the goals expected from the Review Committee,” said Sundsmo. “My position is experimental; it is a part of this transition. I am excited to see how far ahead we go.”
Despite the improvement, there remain some fundamental problems with campus mental health services. Lawler was particularly upset after an experience last year, when she went to the PCMHC with a mental health issue without notifying the College, but then returned to find that various College employees were aware of her situation. “I had to make an appointment with a higher up administrator just to know who knew my information, which I think is pretty inappropriate,” Lawler said. “Confidentiality is really important to mental health, especially on a small campus.”
Another key issue, as stated in the report, is that “Many of the College’s current policies are inadequate, not transparent, confusing, narrow, unclear and/or cumbersome. In some cases it’s clear they have the potential to inhibit students from seeking mental health services.”
Lawler said she has often felt that she has to prevent the College from becoming involved with her mental health concerns. “I don’t feel comfortable about how the College gets involved with the students,” she said.
Because mental health is a sensitive subject, helping students feeling comfortable and open talking about it is key. Shivani Santoki ’11 said that she would like it if there were a group of students trained on campus to act as basic-level counselors. “When it is someone who is of a similar age, you feel much more comfortable,” she said. “When it is work-related stress then you know they are on the same boat as you are, so you can relate much more to them.”
New student group, Active Minds, has potential to become a valuable asset in making students feel more comfortable openly discussing mental health issues. Chris Hildebrand ’10 and Paul Kramer ’09 started the group last semester to help get rid of some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and to put such issues out in the open for students to discuss. Group members said that the group has been receiving very positive responses. “The fact that many people show up for the group meetings, makes me feel optimistic about it,” Hildebrand said.
Active Minds is affiliated with a nation-wide mental health organization by the same name that focuses on clearing the social stigma that mental illness is a weakness. The organization finances projects and advertisements in different colleges and universities across the country.
Earlier this year the campus group distributed depression screenings and information about depression awareness, and a few weeks ago they screened the film Girl, Interrupted, about a woman who attempts suicide and is sent to a female mental institution. They said they would also be more than willing to organize any needed support groups. “I know there was an eating disorder support group on campus,” said Hildebrand. “If we still want more peer support groups we can always work that out.”
Hopefully student participation in Active Minds and interest in campus mental health will continue since, as Lawler pointed out, student input is key in helping the College meet student mental health needs. “I would like to see a much higher rate of constructive criticism by students.”