Every week, Tre Thomas, junior history major, walks into the Counseling Center on campus.
The first time he went, he was nervous. He had never spoken with a counselor before.
Now, walking in that room brings him comfort.
Usually, he said he just checks if his counselor’s door is open, and he is invited in to talk.
“It’s super welcoming,” Thomas said.
For Thomas, deciding to go to the Counseling Center wasn’t an easy decision at first. It meant recognizing he needed help and purposefully asking for it.
“It’s really opening yourself up to another person and saying, ‘I need help,’ when you feel like most people can do it on their own and you should be able to do it on your own,” Thomas said. “I’ve been doing it on my own for so much time, and now it’s just good not to.”
Jane Owen has worked as the director of Clinical Services and the Counseling Center at Waynesburg University for 32 years and said she continues to see a greater need for counseling in universities.
“More and more people are experiencing anxiety, depression and hopelessness than in the past,” Owen said, “A combination of experiencing it and also having less coping skills to lean on when that occurs.”
The number of Waynesburg University students who go to the Counseling Center, a free service to them, has tripled over the last year, with the majority of students struggling with anxiety and depression, Mary Hamilla, academic and major decision counselor, said.
Although more people are suffering, Hamilla said the upside to the amount of people getting help from the center is “that many more people are willing to seek help when symptoms are present.”
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, suicide is the second leading cause of college student deaths; due mainly to anxiety and depression. Hamilla said part of the reason for this rise is the difficult transition students experience when they enter college. Hamilla added the academic and social expectations can be overwhelming for students, causing stress and anxiety levels to skyrocket.
“Previous anxiety gets heightened as students navigate fitting in socially, living with people they do not really know, succeeding academically, dealing with homesickness, financial worries and many other issues,” Hamilla said.
There are two different types of depression and anxiety Owen said she sees most often. First, the depression and anxiety about things occurring in real life, such as school work, financial problems and relationship issues.
“Those are very real things that cause anxiety and depression, and it’s normal for it to cause that,” Owen said.
The second type, she said, is depression and anxiety despite real life situations going well.
One of the most important methods to helping students as a counselor, Hamilla said, is building relationships. Additionally, she said each counselor has their own techniques based on their experience and teaching skills.
“Students need to trust their counselor, to feel confident that we understand them, we care, and we know how to help,” she said. “We have learned a great deal about mindfulness practice. Training people to be in the moment and learn to recognize thoughts as thoughts, not necessarily truth, is very beneficial psychologically and physically.”
According to Owen and Hamilla, counselors each experience their own challenges in the field, and many outside factors contribute to these issues. They said one large challenging factor are the stigmas that surround students admitting that they have a problem and seeing someone for it. They said this prevents some people from revealing their problems or seeing a professional when it may be beneficial to them.
“We’ve been taught, ‘You don’t need anybody else. You should be able to handle this on your own. You should be able to figure this out. Your problems aren’t as bad as everybody else’s problems,’” Owen said. “I think those messages get in [people’s] heads and then people are reluctant.”
Another challenge that arises is lack of communication, Owen said, adding that people are often afraid or unprepared to talk about the issues they are facing in their lives. When these situations occur, Hamilla said, they meet students where they are and don’t push them to say any more than they are comfortable with at the time.
“Sometimes people just may not be ready to work on difficult issues yet,” Hamilla said. “They may come in periodically when things are unbearable, but not continue. Even then, however, the occasional supportive experience with a counselor can open the door to working in the future.”
Dr. Edward Hersh, a pastoral counselor in Pennsylvania and author of the book, Escaping the Pain of Offense, said the biggest challenge he faces when counseling people is that they may think they have everything figured out and might not take the actions they need to help themselves.
“The biggest challenge is to get people to see their need for change,” Hersh said. “We all have blind spots; we all have faults. We all have things about what we believe that aren’t true that are causing problems.”
Although counseling can provide much assistance to those seeking help for mental health issues, Owen said people may also need to take medication for their symptoms along with the talk therapy and other services they receive when they go to a counselor.
“At a college counseling center, what we can offer is talk therapy, and we can teach students different skills, techniques and theories and ways to reduce anxiety and depression,” Owen said. “What we can’t do is prescribe [medications], and sometimes the best thing for somebody who is dealing with, especially the combination of, anxiety and depression is often pharmaceutical.”
Owen said some people are open to multiple options and others would rather do only talk therapy or just pharmaceutical options. F
or Owen, the most effective approach for a person who chooses to take medication is to continue to also speak to a counselor.
Despite using different methods to help, Owen added that often mental health issues don’t just go away, but continue through adulthood.
“The reason is that they are in a lot of pain. It’s not that they want to hurt anyone or hurt their families or friends,” Owen said.
Hersh said one of the most important goals in counseling to prevent future issues is to help people regain hope.
“Anytime you have less hope, you’re going to have less confidence in the future and be more prone to all kind of fears and things that can affect your beliefs,” Hersh said. “The overall goal is to increase hope, and how you get there depends on who the person is.”
One of Thomas’ main reasons for going to the Counseling Center was because his friends recommended it.
He believes this is one of the best ways students can help others make the decision to go if they need to.
“I think peer influence is so much stronger than anything else,” he said. “Let your friends know that you’re there for them through anything.”
Despite expectations that are placed on students, Thomas believes people should be comfortable with who they are and do only what they can handle.
“It’s alright to mess up sometimes… everybody falls,” he said. “It’s what you do after the fall that makes you who you are.”