More than just stress


Author: Cordelia Kenney

Every minute, someone in the United States attempts suicide. On any given day, 12 people ages 15 to 24 will commit suicide. Out of every 100 college students, 1.5 have attempted suicide. For college students, external factors like the economy, academic and social competitiveness, tuition and campus crime can significantly impact their mental health. Yet many undergraduates do not receive care because of the lack of information about available resources or fear of the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

There has not been a completed suicide on Occidental’s campus in many years; The most recent suicide of an Occidental student occurred off campus 10 years ago in New York, according to The New York Post. Daily crime logs published by Campus Safety, though, illustrate the reality of attempted suicides on campus. As recently as April 14, Campus Safety reported an attempted suicide in a residence hall.

“There are a lot of people who are in considerable pain and alone who aren’t thinking about [suicide,] but could if something happens that exacerbates how they’re feeling,” Associate Director of Student Wellness Services and Director of Psychological Services at Emmons Student Wellness Center Matthew Calkins ’96 said.

“Students who are in college today are facing massive stresses around performance,” Calkins said. “There are a lot of factors in this environment today that will lead to people feeling very stressed. Everyone at one point or another has a period where they feel like it’s too much.”

Emotional distress occurs on a spectrum, and suicide represents only one end of that spectrum, Calkins explains. For some students, suicidal thoughts might be a part of their spectrum of mental health. According to Calkins, for many Occidental students struggling with their mental health, their difficulties often derive from external factors.

“By far the largest presenting issue in treatment at Emmons involves anxiety and stress associated with academic performance, reactions to relationships [and] social life or other external events,” Calkins said in an email. “Another common reported experience is that of being overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness or hopelessness. A portion of these individuals may develop fantasies of ending their life, or ‘turning off’ their emotions.”

Calkins, who has been with Emmons since 2008, says that the frequency of suicide among college students nationwide has remained relatively consistent for the past decade. A recent infographic put out by found that six percent of undergraduates in four-year programs have “seriously considered attempting suicide” in the last year, but almost half of those students indicated in the survey that they did not tell anyone about the attempt. The infographic reports that since the ’50s, rates of suicide among 15 to 24-year-olds have tripled.

Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Barbara Avery sent out a campus-wide email on April 14 encouraging students to take advantage of mental health services at Occidental. Avery’s email followed a similar letter sent to parents a month before. Both letters served as a reminder of available mental health resources on campus. They included a list of resources students can consult if they feel they are struggling, such as the brand-new 24/7 Confidential Hotline, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL), Project S.A.F.E., Emmons and Disability Services.

“Mental health is an issue that many people can feel uncomfortable discussing. As a result, students may not seek help when they need it,” Avery said in the March 13 parents letter. “Yet over the last several years, Emmons staff has seen a marked increase in the number of students requiring counseling assistance part of a nationwide trend. There can be serious consequences for students who don’t get timely professional support. We need your help in reminding your student of the support services that are available at Oxy if they need them.”

Since the 200910 academic year, the total number of clients seen by therapists in Emmons has risen from 215 to 308 in the 201213 academic year, bringing the percentage of the total Occidental student population that has seen a school therapist in the past year to 14 percent. Some students, however, have not reached out for help when they need it. These are the students Avery and Calkins especially hope to reach.

“Oftentimes, people say they don’t really know what resources we have on campus. We need to get these resources out there so more people know about them,” Calkins said.

Calkins explained that staff members at Emmons teamed up with individuals from the Dean of Students office to publicize the options available to students who feel they are struggling, and to remind student that there is no shame in asking for help. Together with Director of Student Wellness Robin Davidson and Senior Associate Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard, Calkins worked with Avery to compose a letter to send to both parents and students about resources on campus.

“The conversation about how to help students since I’ve been here has been constant, especially with Emmons and the Dean of Students,” Calkins said. “Different colleges and universities over many years have had to deal with the tragedy of completed suicide, which prompted a letter to be sent acknowledging that we need to do more and say more. Oxy’s approach was, ‘Why does this tragedy have to happen for us to send out a letter like that?’ We recognized that we need to be proactive instead of reactive.”

Avery stated that she has received hundreds of positive responses from parents who are grateful that the administration sent out such a letter. She also mirrored Calkins’ endorsement of a proactive approach when it comes to establishing and maintaining a network of support for the holistic health of students.

“My role as an administrator is to look out for students and to make sure that they have access to services,” Avery said. “We’re always looking at ways to improve access to Emmons, but we also offer different options. It’s good to keep reminding people of them. We want as many pathways as possible for students to seek help.”

Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) and Spanish double major Dana Rust (sophomore) heads the newly-established chapter on campus of Active Minds, a national organization that promotes awareness of mental health issues.

Rust met with Avery recently to discuss the group’s goals.

“The administration has been really responsive and [Avery] seems sincerely to want to encourage students to take care of their mental health and know what resources are available,” Rust said.

Rust was grateful for Avery mentioning Active Minds in her email, but cautioned that the group cannot provide counseling services itself. As an organization focused primarily on awareness-raising, Active Minds can instead provide a safe space for students to ask questions about mental health.

“We are pleased that [the administration] acknowledged our presence [in the email], but it should be more carefully worded and not listed as a service,” Rust said. “Service is probably not the right word to use.”

In Avery’s letter, she encouraged parents to discuss mental health with their children and to seek out the resources available on campus for mental health.

“It’s important for parents to be informed about our services,” Avery said. “Parents are our biggest allies when it comes to supporting students. People find support in various ways. We wanted to put in that email that there are different ways you can get support.”

One way Occidental students are expressing their thoughts — and avoiding the social stigma — is anonymously via “Oxy Confessions.”

Within the past several weeks, numerous confessions have been posted that address suicidal thoughts. In somewhat of a cascade effect, more students have been anonymously posting about similar experiences of struggling with mental health. Since the inception of “Oxy Confessions,” students have periodically posted about struggling with their mental health, but the last few weeks have shown an increase in postings specifically centered on suicide.

“I saw confession No. 3100 [in which a survivor commemorated the second anniversary of his or her suicide attempt] and I wanted them to know they aren’t alone. April 17 will be the four year anniversary of me not hanging myself. Every day is hard but I’m learning it’s all worth it,” No. 3130, posted last week, reads.

Other confessions express feelings of isolation, anxiety and fear.

I can’t trust anyone here, I am too ashamed to say anything, and I wish I could escape myself. I don’t like being scared all the time,” No. 3126 reads.

A lengthy anonymous post addressed the stigma surrounding mental health Wednesday.

“When you break a bone, you go see a doctor, and you go to a physical therapist and slowly get stronger. There is no shame in breaking a bone, so why should there be shame when you need help emotionally?” No. 3144 reads.

In regard to “Oxy Confessions” posts about struggling with mental health, Calkins stated that the visibility of the forum to students may be why mental health seems more salient now, even though it has been an issue all along.

Moreover, the suicides of high-achieving students nationwide have been receiving more national media attention in the last several years, bringing into focus the reality that many students struggle with their mental health. Last Tuesday, for example, a high school student in Kentucky committed suicide after posting a YouTube video about her plans to end her life. A recent op-ed in the Harvard Crimson addressed directly the rising number of suicides at Harvard in the last several years alone. The author reflected on the culture of silence surrounding mental health.

“These deaths make me wonder what I don’t know about my friends,” Harvard Crimson writer and English major Lanier Walker (senior) wrote. “They make me realize that people who seem okay might actually be struggling. And they make me aware of how little of our lives we share with one another.”

Walker discussed the intense stresses Harvard undergraduates face as well as the tendency of many to avoid confronting emotional distress. At a competitive school such as Occidental, stress levels are also high and students exist in a similar culture that does not embrace openness when it comes to talking about mental health issues.

“My first hope is that people who are struggling will choose to reach out to somebody, anybody, and choose to not be isolated,” Calkins said. “It takes a lot of courage to say, ‘I need help.’ Cultural norms work very much against that.”

As the booked schedule of counselors at Emmons indicates, though, more Occidental students are choosing to reach out when they are grappling with personal issues.

“The person I talked to was really approachable,” an anonymous sophomore said. “It was like talking to a friend. It was a stressful time, and they helped me immediately. [They] made time and would go over time if I needed to talk.”

While more students have taken advantage of available resources, Emmons staff still has difficulty addressing all students’ needs.

“I had a really frustrating experience at Emmons when trying to get help for an eating disorder,” another anonymous student said. “I had to repeat my (very personal and uncomfortable) story to two doctors at Emmons on two separate occasions and ultimately was told to find a doctor somewhere else. I felt much worse about my situation than before I had gone in.”

Calkins attributes many of the problems at Emmons to understaffing, which he says is a common occurrence nationally. Emmons has added staff since Calkins first started there in 2008. At the time, Calkins was the only full-time psychologist and there was only one full-time, master’s-level therapist. Now, Emmons has two full-time and one part-time licensed psychologist and three part-time, pre-doctoral therapists working as interns. Next year, two of the interns will become full-time employees, according to Calkins.

The Mose and Sylvia Firestone Foundation recently provided a $1 million endowment to expand psychological services at Occidental, which helped fund the addition of the new part-time psychologist. Still, Calkins said that he recognized the need for more staff, which is a problem for many institutions. Avery stated that she is wholly supportive of adding more staff to Emmons, but that it depends on whether next year’s budget allots the necessary resources for it.

“We’re adding every year, but it takes time,” Calkins said. “It’s the norm. It’s a funding issue, but it’s one all colleges deal with.”

Emmons counseling services offers daily walk-in hours from 9 to 10 a.m. during the week in which students can walk in without an appointment to talk to a therapist. According to Calkins, these walk-in hours are often underused. Students can also call the recently implemented confidential hotline at any time. If there is an emergency, the staff at Emmons will help the student work through it.

“We can’t do long-term, three-times-a-week kind of support, but we can get a student started in that direction and provide the beginnings for getting the care that they need,” Calkins said. “We work with students to figure out what they need and we will work to provide it.”

In addition to individual counseling sessions, Emmons provides group services, including a mindfulness group that focuses on stress reduction, a survivors circle for survivors of sexual assault or other trauma and a relationships group that focuses on communication, according to Calkins.

Staff members at Emmons are working with Active Minds, the Student Wellness Action Committee (SWAC) and the Office of Student Life (OSL) this year to facilitate access to resources on campus. Together, they are working toward creating a more robust program that addresses mental health.

“[Active Minds’] role is fighting stigma on a student level,” Rust said. “The administration’s role is to make sure that when students are ready to take advantage of resources, they make sure resources are there and support access to them.”

Active Minds hosted their second open mic night of the year. Active Minds is co-sponsoring an event with Gamma centered on dealing with stress, which will include a guided meditation and tips for managing stress.

Calkins also recognized the need for more extensive outreach to students and plans on working with students and staff to make services more visible.

“We have to and will be doing more proactive outreach with student groups and to the whole campus about resources we have, especially the hotline,” Calkins said. “We recognize that we need to be more visible in the community.”

According to Rust, the administration responded positively to Active Minds’ petition for improved services for mental health, including a trained case manager. Avery stated that she supports the addition of adding a case manager to Emmons’ staff. Whether one is hired depends on budgeting as well as what the next director of Emmons recommends, as the current director Davidson will step down from her position at the end of the semester.

“They don’t have a recommendation I disagree with,” Avery said. “Our goal is to make sure that students who need help and support are comfortable asking for it. We talk about this all the time. It’s an ongoing conversation.”

Rust believes that the addition of trained peer counselors would help avoid the issue of lack of funding, at least for now. While having peer counselors could also encourage more students to access care if they are struggling with their mental health, Calkins noted that it will take research and planning to ensure that the program is strong and successful. Rust is working with Active Minds to try and create a committee, which would propose a model for a peer counseling program within the next two years.

“Ultimately, we need to spread the message that it’s okay to get help,” Calkins said. “Pretty much everyone feels stress at some point. We need to create a culture where it’s okay to be an emotional person. It should be more of a social norm that it’s okay to talk to one another. People have to recognize that there’s no shame in needing to lean on someone. The number of people who feel sad or anxious is always high because it’s a common human experience.”

The stigma that is attached to feelings of sadness or anxiety often leads to isolation as a result of students feeling ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. In addition to encouraging students to access care when they need it, Calkins hopes that students will provide feedback so that the counseling services can be as effective as possible.

“I want to empower students to give feedback about their experience on campus in terms of getting support and encourage students if they’re open to it to contact myself or Robin Davidson,” Calkins said. “We do the best we can to meet the needs of every student, but we recognize that some students might feel like they aren’t getting the help they need. I would want to know that so we can figure something out.”


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