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Missing From Campus: An Honest Conversation About When to Seek Counseling

In my time at Boston College, I’ve heard a lot about the rising demand for University Counseling Services (UCS), the lack of increased staff to meet student needs, and student frustration about the wait times for an appointment. Despite adding two new full-time faculty members in the spring of 2016, these issues remain. One of the causes most commonly cited for the increased use of counseling services is declining resilience among students, which has created an unhealthy campus conversation regarding mental health. Citing a lack of resilience for the high demands at UCS prevents students who really need it from seeking counseling and makes UCS less efficient.

Often, the longer someone waits to start counseling, the more help they need when they finally arrive. This makes the resilience conversation on campus a counterproductive one. If a student unsuccessfully tries for months to heal themselves, then this student will need help more urgently if they ever do decide to seek counseling through the university. As a result of our unhealthy conversation about resilience, I believe many students try to help themselves on their own.

In addition to increases in requests for appointments, UCS has also seen an increase in emergency visits. This shows that many students are waiting until they are in crisis mode before seeking help—a reality that should not exist. Students should feel comfortable seeking help before this point, but clearly many do not. Whether or not students are showing declining resilience, centering the conversation about the phenomenon of resilience around the use of UCS is counterproductive. It ultimately makes the UCS system less efficient and causes students to suffer longer unnecessarily.

Furthermore, as the Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion at UCLA, Tyrone C. Howard, argues in The Atlantic, educators “need to recognize the resilience (victims of trauma) are already showing,” as well as account for possible socioeconomic disadvantages affecting students. Our current conversation about resilience presumes that all Boston College students have everything they need, and that the majority of problems facing students are trivial. It ignores victims of trauma and abuse on this campus and other students who have already overcome obstacles. This number includes the 1,400 Montserrat students on this campus who have already shown incredible strength by overcoming financial barriers to be here.

Seeking counseling should not be seen as opposed to resilience, but rather a form of it. On a campus so obsessed with perfection, getting help in any form should be lauded as a brave act of resilience in itself. Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Nothing about that definition suggests that recovering quickly can’t involve outside help from a professional counselor.

Finally, our conversation on resilience and counseling services ignores a more important discussion that should be taking place. We should stop talking about how some students’ issues could be handled outside of counseling, and start a more meaningful dialogue about when students should reach out to UCS for help.

Just as many of us as young adults are figuring out how serious a physical condition requires a visit to a primary care doctor, so too are we figuring out how serious a mental health concern requires a visit to a psychologist or psychiatrist. The resilience conversation overshadows more important questions, such as: How do I tell the difference between a low mood and depression? How long (or to what intensity) should I be experiencing a low mood before I seek counseling? What are signs that I need, or that a friend needs, counseling? While these questions are subjective, and may not have straightforward answers, I believe they are a more effective approach to take in our campus conversation about counseling.