Psyching Yourself Out: Why So Many Girls Are (& Aren't) Getting Mental Health Help On Campus

Talking about my second year at college brings up the same sensations that reading old diary entries from middle school does—except the former recollections are still mortifying and have yet to become something to laugh about. During that gloomy sophomore year, I often went for walks in the park when I was frustrated and had no one to talk to. It seemed easier to stomp along a dirt path with my cell phone turned off and my iPod blasting than to talk to a person, because I didn’t want to complain to others. I spent a lot of time being stressed out and feeling isolated and dwelled on my problems with a single-minded, almost self-absorbed focus.

The thing was, I did want to mull things over with someone else, but felt that I’d be burdening another person with my issues. I entertained the thought of speaking to a counselor, but decided against it for reasons that are probably familiar to many people: I didn’t want to get too personal with someone over a seemingly trivial issue; I worried about confidentiality and whether I’d get along with my prospective therapist, and I stressed about the idea of being seen as someone who needed to sort through mental health issues. It turns out that many college women feel the same way.

In a recent survey conducted by Her Campus, 42.6% of 94 college women had spoken to a counselor on campus. More than 90% of this group did so of their own volition, and the majority of these women reported having a “somewhat positive” experience on their first visit. Out of the 90% of respondents who went of their own accord, 66% claimed to have a “somewhat positive” or “very positive” experience during subsequent meetings with the same counselor.

Even so, despite their satisfaction with their school’s mental health facilities, many of these students still had misgivings about speaking to an on-campus therapist. One anonymous respondent had this to say: I think the hardest thing about seeing a counselor was that I felt embarrassed that I needed to speak to someone—that I couldn’t handle life’s situations on my own. Even though I think it’s an incredibly valuable resource, and even though it helped me a lot, the embarrassment is still something I struggle with.

Working through the stigma surrounding mental health is one of the most important issues for young women today. It’s easy to concentrate on keeping our grades up and our bodies healthy, and to forget about what holds all of that together: our minds. Counselors and psychologists can be great resources for anyone dealing with academic stress and difficult living situations, or with more complicated issues like depression or sexual assault. Some people hit it off with their counselors during the very first meeting, while others have to shop around to find a good fit, but the process can be a worthwhile one even if it isn’t always easy.

Her Campus spoke to two college women who have had two different experiences with the mental health facilities on their campuses. Read on to see what they had to say about the process of taking a seat on the proverbial (or in this case, literal) leather couch, and opening up to someone unfamiliar.

Daniela, Boston College: Dealing with academic and personal stress
When the stress of classes and extracurricular activities started affecting other aspects of her life, Daniela, a senior at Boston College, decided to consult a therapist. “I first went to see a counselor in junior year. I didn’t think I needed to until then, but I was having a really stressful semester. I was involved in a lot of different clubs but I wasn’t having fun with them. I had a lot of work to do, the whole ‘boys’ thing wasn’t working out, and my roommate situation kind of sucked. I didn’t realize that I was more upset than I realized and I’d think, ‘Whatever, I’m fine’—but it was getting to me.

“I talked to my friends about everything, but that wasn’t always helpful. In terms of the guy, my friends would tell me to go for it and see what happened. But, in a way, that can be bad because sometimes you do need to be told: ‘Don’t go for it. Maybe it’s not going to work out.’ And it’s great to have support from friends and family about activities, but I needed an objective point of view from someone who wouldn’t just tell me I’d be okay. I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of going [to see a therapist] or what would happen; I just thought I’d try it.

“I did some research before making an appointment. At BC there are two or three counselors that they suggest for AHANA (African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) students. I remembered someone mentioning a great counselor when I was a freshman, so I looked her up online and then scheduled a meeting with her; it took about a week to see her. When we met, I filled out a sort of diagnostic personality test and talked a little about how I had been feeling, my drinking habits, and how I was doing in school. She said she saw that I was having trouble concentrating and that I was losing motivation. I wasn’t doing well in a class and she suggested that I talk to the professor. She was very professional but also made me feel like it was okay to talk about what was going on. I tried to be as open as possible, but I probably didn’t get very personal until our second-to-last meeting. Once I did, she said she was glad because she understood more why certain things affected me, and it was helpful.

“I can see why someone might be opposed to [speaking to a counselor]—because they don’t want to be judged, or are afraid that people will call them ‘crazy’—but lots of people go through similar things and if you want to talk to someone, you should. I haven’t seen the counselor I spoke to since last year, but I’m thinking of going back. It would be nice to go back to someone that knew me from last year, but first I want to figure out how to improve things on my own.”

Elizabeth, Williams College: Dealing with anxiety and mood disorders
For college women experiencing anxiety or mood disorders, schoolwork and fun often take a backseat to the task of just getting through the day. The Fall 2009 National College Health Assessment conducted by the American College Health Association found that 52% of college women “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year, and that 31.7% felt so depressed at a given moment that it was difficult to function. Elizabeth, a senior at Williams College, counts herself among these women, and as a result she turned to the mental health professionals on campus for help.

“I first decided to speak to a counselor in my freshman year of college,” says Elizabeth. “My friends thought I was depressed and suggested it, but I just didn’t want to [go] at that point. But a friend of mine kept saying, ‘You should see someone, you should see someone. I can’t help you with this.’ We went to the health center and I was allowed to speak to someone on the first visit. I only saw that person once. She was old and a little weird, and it was stressful because she said things like, ‘Do you hurt yourself? I need to know because if you do then we’ll have to take you to a hospital.’ If she asked in a different way, I might have stuck with her, but the way she did it freaked me out and turned me off.

“In junior year I started seeing the psychiatrist who gives me my [ADD] medication just to talk; I thought it would be a good idea. But I ended up not liking [her] either because she didn’t ever say anything—she just let me keep talking and talking and I needed more guidance than that. It was also a little weird because one of my good friends at the time was seeing her, too. At first it was kind of cool, but then once I started having actual issues, some that concerned my friend, I wanted distance from both of them. I felt like [my psychiatrist] could potentially be biased after hearing a story that someone else had told her. I wasn’t nervous about confidentiality, but I just wanted some separation. She said it was completely fine and I started seeing someone else that I’m still seeing now.  

“The person I’m seeing now actually gives me advice, so that’s worked out. She makes me feel like she’s listening, and she remembers things about earlier conversations, so I feel like she cares. In the end, I went to speak to someone because I wanted advice, and I wanted to see if I could change things about my life. I talk a lot to my friends and I’m very open about things, but I wanted someone who has a different way of looking at mental health. My friends could say, ‘Oh, you sound depressed,’ but that doesn’t mean as much because they can’t say for sure what’s wrong, or [know] what I should do.”

Notably, Elizabeth also sees a psychologist when she is back at home. While some Her Campus survey respondents said that speaking with a therapist from home overrides the need to speak to someone at school, Elizabeth has found that there are merits to doing both, and she intends to keep making appointments with both counselors.

“My parents only made me talk to someone [at home] when I was having panic attacks. They’re religious, so I started seeing a Christian psychologist who helped them when they were having marital problems. That might be why I like her so much—because she knows my background. She asks more questions about my family and because of that she knows me a little better. I [also] think it’s important to speak to someone with your faith because things like masturbation or sex seem like they’re not a big deal to a lot of people, but it can be a whole different story to someone else. I thought that a Christian psychologist would be really strict, but after seeing her and it not being like that, I saw that it could be different.

“College is such a strange time period and we’re going through a lot of changes. You should never feel too proud or embarrassed to talk about what’s going on,” adds Elizabeth.

Judith is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis with a double major in English and Spanish and a minor in Creative Writing. She is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Spires, a literary magazine on the WashU campus, and a former features intern for Seventeen and Marie Claire. A proud nerd whose greatest joys include LexisNexis and, Judith can usually be found looking for new music or espousing the wonders of Twitter, Harry Potter, and late 16th century English Literature to anyone willing to listen. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Judith plans to explore as much of St. Louis as she can in her final year of college--even without a car (or a learner's permit...).