Editor’s note: We kept student interviews anonymous because of the stigma associated with mental health. Students were all interviewed in January 2022.
It starts in the belly, the knot of tension that makes every other part of the body keyed up and ready to run from a tiger; but there is no tiger. There is just the midterm, or the student loan, or the mountain of school work and the plethora of household responsibilities.
Many students and faculty regularly feel overwhelmed and struggle with depression, anxiety, or a number of other mental health challenges as they try to achieve a work-life balance.
And a lot of them are not asking for help.
According to a Jed Foundation study, only 30% of students sought help with professional counseling. One of our UCC veteran students (our first veteran interview) just completed 45 credits as a homeless student with no internet. He did not have the knowledge or energy to access UCC resources. The latest Student Voice Survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed found, “Only 15% (of students) engaged in college-offered counseling in the past year.”
So why don’t they all seek help?
“We are embarrassed. We don’t even want to admit to ourselves,” said a UCC general studies student over the phone. “It took me a full year of struggling with my own mental health issues to finally admit I needed help.”
She is not alone. A third of the students in the Student Voice survey said they cope with mental health issues by “hiding themselves away from the world.”
Associate professor of Human Services Alex Jardon, whose master’s and doctorate degree both involve mental health counseling, notes that the mental health issue often can be its own self-perpetuating barrier. “With depression, for example,” Jardon said over the phone, “oftentimes people isolate themselves because they feel they are a burden on other people. So they stop hanging out with others or asking for help, which itself makes the depression worse.”
Isolation is often a by-product of depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders that appears to improve with socialization. According to a study reported by US News, “For every one point in connectedness students had, they had 10% to 6% lower odds of developing anxiety or depression.”
Social and cultural stigma is often one of the lead barriers when it comes to asking for professional help. “A barrier that I’ve faced is public scrutiny. Over-examining how I might be perceived in the moment by the persons involved in helping me seek care,” said our second veteran and UCC transfer student. “If you don’t adhere to this or that specific way of what the culture has taught is acceptable on how to be, and think, and feel then you are often alienated as a social pariah of sorts, vilified even, and become the target of disparaging remarks,” the veteran said.
Many times the fear of appearing crazy can impede asking for help. Zem Chance is a licensed marriage and family therapist operating a private practice in Eugene, Oregon. “Language is so important; we should be aware of the words we use (even to ourselves). I actively try to eliminate words like crazy from my lexicon,” said Chance over the phone.
If fear of looking crazy or feeling judged is a factor in seeking help, Chance reminds people that therapists are bound to confidentiality. “Therapy is by nature confidential. If you are in therapy and you don’t want anybody to know, nobody has to,” said Chance.
Another barrier many find in seeking professional help is availability and distance. “Particularly being in a rural area, there is a lack of services. A lot of mental health providers are overwhelmed,” said Jardon over the phone. “There is more need than people to fit that need.”
For many, finding access to the “right” therapist is a challenge. Alex Olsen, UCC sociology associate professor said, “It might be hard to find a provider that can fit your specific needs, is trauma informed, or culturally competent. Unfortunately, the more marginalized you are, the harder it is to find a mental health provider to fit your needs.”
Chance agrees that therapists can be overwhelmed and have more demand than many can handle but notes that technology is offering some answers. “One positive from the pandemic is telehealth. Because of telehealth, I have been able to see clients that I wouldn’t have access to,” said Chance.
Another realistic challenge in seeking professional help is cost. “Mental health care is not cheap; it can be costly,” said Jardon.
Although many insurance plans do cover some portion of mental health assistance, many students and instructors admit the cost as a barrier.
“Definitely money and transportation stop me (from getting help) and that’s why I’m not going right now. I used to go to counseling weekly, and then I couldn’t afford it. I then moved on,” said another UCC student.
Although there are some sliding scale therapists available for the general public, UCC students have the advantage of free on-campus services. Every UCC student has access to six private counseling sessions available with UCC Wellness Counselor Hanna Culbertson and access to the Student Assistance Program which is free online counseling for students, their families and roommates.
Perhaps the problem with seeking help is related to communication.
“So many times as children we are told to ‘suck it up,’ ‘are you bleeding?,’ ‘deal with it.’ Mental health is such a taboo subject, and people are unaware they might even have an issue. If they are aware of the problem, they don’t want to admit it and feel like there is something ‘wrong with them,” said a human service student. “I feel mental health should start with the public and breaking the taboo of it all.”
This sentiment is echoed by many, including Culbertson: “I think normalizing seeking out counseling is really important. If you seek counseling, normalizing that for peers can help someone else.” Culbertson has a master’s degree in social work and diverse experience in mental health and education. “I often tell students that I seek out counseling when I need it as well, and that is part of me intentionally trying to normalize that everyone can benefit from counseling sometimes, and everyone needs outside support sometimes,” wrote Culbertson in an email.
There are a number of barriers that students and staff face when seeking professional help, but most agree that avoidance generally leads to a worsening of symptoms.
“Don’t let fear stand in the way from seeking help,” advises another transfer student. “If one avenue of help doesn’t work out, move on to the next; someone will listen.”
Ten interviews of UCC students were done for this article, but this story only skims the surface of the barriers in Douglas County and the United States to quality mental health care.
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For more articles by Rachel Arceo please click here.
This is one of eight articles in our special series on mental health. For the rest of the articles in this series, select any of the links below:
Editorial – One stress factor we have control over: our diet
UCC student discusses his college anxiety
Trapped Behind the Mask: Neurodivergent student shares college pandemic struggles
Student Assistance Plan offers free virtual counseling services for UCC students, their families and roommates
Science-based coping strategies reduce mental stress, improve mental health
Poor mental health is costing employers billions
UCC students share their anxiety coping strategies