Prioritizing Mental Health in a Busy Semester

By Brooke Schultz

On top of homework, essays, and exams, there’s something even more important— students’ mental health.

In the throes of the semester, however, it can be difficult to put oneself first, or there can be a perception of stigmatization, said Dr. Miranda Altman, director of Counseling Services.

“There’s a continuum of mental health and most students fall into normal range and can engage with Counseling Services as often as needed,” she said in her office last week. “There’s no stigma. We don’t want you to feel stigmatized. Whatever you’re struggling with is acceptable and we can help manage it.”

The problem, sometimes, is knowing when the stress is becoming too severe.

“We don’t always know when things are bad,” she said.

Dr. Altman said that clear indications that a student may need some support include: a change in attention span; difficulty getting out of bed, fatigue, and malaise; feelings interfere with the ability to navigate academics; a struggle to balance social life and school; not enjoying what you used to enjoy; not sleeping the same; an appetite change; and an increase in conflict with others.

“You don’t have to be alone in this. It feels good to let it out,” she said.

Dr. Altman said that Counseling Services is open to students no matter their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, culture, or abled-ness.

“We work hard to understand what we don’t know,” she said. “We will find a way to be relevant. We have to be flexible in counseling our approach for all students.”

Additionally, Counseling Services is working towards creating an event to commemorate the national week of suicide observance.

“We are trying to destigmatize mental illness by creating a more expansive dialogue,” Dr. Altman said.

While Counseling Services is not a 24/7 facility, there are ways to get in touch with a counselor at all times. Students can contact a Resident Assistant, Peer Mentor, or Public Safety in order to speak with a counselor after hours. There is unlimited access to their services.

“We have three full-time professionals who have been able to meet with many more students with acute distress,” she said. “I’m gratified we’re meeting a high level of need. I want to mediate acute distress so they feel balance in academic and social areas. [We want to help] them so they’re in a better position for an optimal college experience.”

For all different academic years, the stressors vary, said Dr. Altman.  Freshmen show a lot of signs of homesickness.

“Stress related to transitioning into a different environment — anxious about taking care of what their parents have done for them. It’s a leap for some students — concern over management, missing friends, dogs, family. It’s typical, normal [to experience that],” she said.

First-year student athletes, too, have different pressures.

“Balancing early lifts, practice, games, social life, and academics is a real transition. It’s good to talk with the coaches; they’re good support,” she said.

Her advice for the first-year students still getting acclimated is: keep talking.

“If you talk to people, you realize people feel what you’re feeling. If a student isolates, there’s no way of knowing that they’re experiencing distress,” she said.

If a student notices a floormate who is keeping to themselves, she suggests reaching out.

“In the first few weeks of school, we see this almost desperate need to find a group, which becomes the family you choose while you are in college,” she said. “Pay attention to those in your hall, who you haven’t seen for a while so you have a sense of who might be isolating. Out of compassion and generous spirit, reach out to someone. If you see someone sitting alone, it’d be nice to walk up to them. What takes a small effort from you can make a huge difference to the other person.”

She also advised students to reach out if they are concerned about their friend or roommate.

“You can tell your RA, call Public Safety — we want students to feel encouraged to reach out to us. It’s better not to keep those secrets,” she said. “It’s better to deal with (a friend’s) anger than for them to be unsafe.”

For the upperclassmen, Dr. Altman said each year has their own difficulties.

“Some things are easier. Coming back, there’s a sense of expectations of the workload, you are more comfortable with your professors and more familiar with the campus culture,” she said.

Sophomores, she said, are usually able to figure out their major while feeling at ease with their “self-sufficiency and freedom,” she said.

For juniors and seniors, there’s an awareness of what comes after college.

“The stressors juniors and seniors [face] are different because there’s a growing awareness of where college will lead them. … There’s excitement and relief to have made it this far and then — oh no, what now? They have to leave the family they chose here on campus, get a job, find a place to live. Everyone is feeling similarly,” she said.

She recommends using the Center for Career Development as a resource to help students figure out what they want to do and how to achieve it.

“Remind yourself it takes time to find a position [after college],” she said. “It doesn’t have to happen before leaving Washington College. This is the last time you get to do this — have freedom, control over your life and decisions. It’s too bad to wish away senior year worrying.”

Even before graduation, there’s what Dr. Altman referred to as the “elephant in the room” —the senior thesis.

“I want to reassure, the SCE is a big paper. The language — capstone, thesis — creates worry and anxiety. I wish students could worry less. I wish they could [understand it is] a culmination of what you have learned, all wrapped up into one, big paper. You wrote so many papers while at WC, this is just a longer one,” she said. “You can bring together all the experience of the major with depth and richness in the capstone because you got to this point.”

She said to avoid those who make you feel more stressed.

When completing the thesis, “Surround yourself with those taking a more positive approach. They understand the weight but maintain a positive outlook and move forward rather than commiserating.”

She also suggested viewing Counseling Services as a resource throughout the process, not just at the end when all the stress has really hit.

Most importantly, Dr. Altman said Counseling Services want to normalize the feelings students experience and emphasized that no one is being “labeled.”

“It’s good to reach out and say they need help — it’s healthy and positive,” she said.

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