According to the spring 2022 National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association, over 75% of U.S. undergraduates experience moderate or severe psychological distress. Only 35.7% reported receiving psychological or mental health services within the past 12 months.
The imbalance raises questions about why students refrain from seeking help. Stigmatization, financial concerns, and past negative experiences are common deterrents.
Sophomores Caitlin Gutierrez and Ambar Gomez both initially hesitated to seek support.
“When you come from a tough background where people want you to suck up your feelings and pretend like they don’t exist, it’s harder to want to reach out,” Gutierrez said.
Associating asking for help with weakness often starts in the home. After overcoming their preconceptions, Gutierrez and Gomez reported positive experiences with Counseling Services.
“Back home wasn’t a place where I could set boundaries with my parents, so coming here and seeking help gave me insight that I have a voice and it could be heard,” Gomez said.
They, like all Ramapo students, are entitled to free resources such as consultations with an on-staff psychiatrist. Short-term counseling was recently expanded with state funding for Telehealth through the online platform Uwill, which offers therapy outside the Counseling Services’ operating hours.
“For me, it’s about access. I want students to get therapy, whether it’s through us or through someone else. I just want them to get the help they feel they need,” said Dr. Judith Green, director of the Center for Health and Counseling Services.
Green said the state has awarded Ramapo a $340,000 grant to address the youth mental health crisis over a four-year period. Applications include a Wellness Room set to open midway through the fall semester and a partnership with TogetherAll, a social platform for struggling college students moderated by mental health clinicians.
“When you come from a tough background where people want you to suck up your feelings and pretend like they don’t exist, it’s harder to want to reach out.”
– Ambar Gomez
Students may prefer to seek support from each other if they have negative past experiences with mental health services. Those who sought out school counselors as minors often got into trouble when their shared problems were reported to their families.
“The reason why I like [Counseling Services] here on campus is because you have to physically sign a paper to give permission to give the information to anyone else. That confidentially, I did not have that in high school or in middle school,” Gutierrez said.
In addition to fearing backlash from family, many members of minority groups often fear speaking with a counselor because they are more likely to have negative experiences. Although homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, LGBTQIA+ people still often have their mental health issues blamed on their identities. This can deter trans or gender nonconforming students — who are more likely than their cisgender peers to report that depression, anxiety, or stress impacted their academic performance — from reaching out.
“Our biases, the values that some people hold, some of our institutions that have a religious affiliation did not make it easy to support people who are trans or queer or nonbinary,” said psychological counselor and LGBTQIA+ liaison Elena Yee. “There could be a mental concern around grappling with one’s identity, but the identity itself is not a mental illness, and that’s how it always had been seen formally.”
Yee has partnered with Women’s Center and LGBTQ Services Coordinator Alex Woods to offer drop-in hours in C-217 on Wednesdays from 2-3 p.m. for students “to test out what counseling could feel like.”
Their partnership extends to Clued-In: Breaking the Stigma of Counseling at Ramapo, a series of Q&A sessions in honor of Suicide Prevention Month.
Green acknowledges the limits of Counseling Services. Students who would benefit from longer-term treatment are referred to specialists or community mental health centers that offer low-cost treatment.
Green encourages students to follow up with Counseling Services to review alternate options if an initial recommendation does not pan out. “When you go shopping for jeans, how many pairs do you have to try on before you find one that’s the right fit? It’s really the same with therapy… the connection with the right therapist is so important.”
Featured photo courtesy of Counseling Services