Counselors Want Students to Look at Mental Health as Part of Overall Wellness
The SUNY Plattsburgh Counseling Center tells students not to wait for a crisis before taking care of their mental health.
Mental health is health.
“Historically we’ve been taught that if you’re struggling with mental health issues it’s a sign of weakness or a character flaw” said Kristina Moquin, one of three counselors in the Student Health and Counseling Center on campus. “It’s not a choice, but it was expected that you just had to deal with it. Students try to open up to their parents, tell them they’re anxious or depressed and parents would say, ‘What do you have to be depressed about? You have this or that — like you have to have a reason to be depressed.”
Moquin, who earned her degree in social work in 2003 and her master’s in mental health counseling in 2008 at SUNY Plattsburgh, said our understanding of physical health “is so much better; it’s an older field. We know about the heart. We know about the kidneys.” But mental health? Not so much.
“The brain is the final frontier, and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface,” she said. “I dream that in my lifetime, they’ll be able to draw blood and find a genetic marker that tells us what you have, what your issues are.”
Christy Minck, assistant director and coordinator of psychological services at the center, said that mental health “is one of eight dimensions of wellness we think of when we think of our overall ‘health:’ emotional/mental; spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, and social.
Balance All Wellness
“All aspects of wellness are inter-connected and impact each other,” Minck said. “It is important to take care of each aspect of our wellness and keep them in balance if we wish to maintain optimal health.”
“Everybody struggles, everybody has trauma in life that affects your mental health,” she said. “It’s good to start way earlier now. You don’t have to wait until something bad has happened before we do something about it.”
Brett Goldberg, a junior psychology major from Clarkstown, N.Y., started play therapy as youngster where he would work on a hypersensitivity to touch, playing in rice, sand, things that felt different. But after stopping the experience in elementary school, he found middle school trying and returned to therapy. He kept with it for a while but then decided “I didn’t need it.”
It wasn’t until early in his senior year of high school that he began cognitive behavior therapy.
“I would wash my hands a lot. CBT helps you correct behavior and have a conscious understanding of why it’s happening so you can make a conscious effort to not do it,” he said. But senior year also brought a bout of anxiety.
“I ended the school year blowing up at my parents; I locked myself in my room and cried. It was a tough situation,” he said. “I pushed people away that summer before I was going away to college. They would call, text, I wouldn’t answer. I never got into drugs or alcohol or anything bad to help cope, but I did push people who knew my situation away.”
Therapy Best Way to Cope
Goldberg’s first semester here was tough. But he realized that therapy — talking to someone — was the best way to cope with the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. He began taking Prozac. And he began talking.
“I talk (remotely) to my psychiatrist once a month and my therapist every week,” he said.
Sophomore early childhood education major Grace Ewing of Burnt Hills, N.Y., has been in therapy since she was a child. Now she sees her therapist regularly via Zoom.
“I think people feel going to therapy hurts their pride. But going to therapy isn’t going against your pride; it’s helping yourself,” she said. “What college student can say they’re never stressed? There’s exams, homework. The simplest of things can hurt your mental health. I’ve had anxiety my whole life; it’s been a roller coaster — some good moments and some bad.”
Like a lot of young people, Ewing struggled in middle school.
“Seventh grade was not a good year,” she said. “It was the hardest year for anxiety.” Medication help as did upping the amount of therapy she received, but finding a high school guidance counselor with whom she could just sit and chat was huge.
“It was nice to have someone inside the school, not just outside the school,” Ewing said. “When I was in middle school, I didn’t tell any of my friends about my anxiety; I saved that for myself. I was that rock for everyone else, but I didn’t want them to see that I was broken inside.”
For Ewing, a saving grace was theater.
“In theater, I had a family and support. In shows, you can express yourself in a way I never thought I could. It was very therapeutic for me,” she said. Lately, Ewing has been working on public speaking skills so she can one day visit high schools to talk to students about the importance of taking care of yourself — physical and mentally.
She also has her eye on starting a charity, which she’s calling “Connected Arts,” to help teens” find a community where they can participate in art classes, journal together, draw together, do crafts, sing, dance and to be there during their struggles.
“I want them to know they’re not alone in this,” she said. “No one wants to be broken.”
Moquin said issues that Goldberg and Ewing face are not the exception but rather the rule for young people.
“We’re accepting more students who need extra support,” she said. “Mental health is huge for retention. If we had the resources to give these students what is needed right off the bat, we could prevent a lot of those students from leaving, transferring or just going home.
“As a campus we all need to buy into the message that mental health is for everybody, that mental health is health,” Moquin said. “We all need to work together on this. If a student presented with an illness or injury, they would get help catching up. But we need to accommodate those students who are struggling in other areas of their health as well. We’re telling students: Life is too short to suffer. Period. Be intentional with your time; don’t wait to feel worse.
“It is my hope that we can cast a feeling across this campus that it is a safe place for the vulnerable population, and for those who need help, we will get you what you need to feel better about yourself,” she said.
Minck agreed, saying that there are many students, like Goldberg and Ewing, who feel comfortable coming forward and seeking counseling.
“But for those who are not, I think outreach is helpful and making connections with students from the counseling center helps,” Minck said. “Increasing the comfort level of our campus allies also is important since referrals to counseling often come from faculty and staff on campus.”
Reducing stigma is a big part of helping students take that first step. The other part is “letting our students know where the resources available to them on campus are and how to access them,” Minck said. “An investment in your mental health will be the most important investment you ever make.”
To take that first step, contact the Student Health and Counseling Center at 518-564-3086 or email [email protected].