Look back through all the coverage of mental health issues by school press in the past several years, and you will notice some interesting trends. The coverage, in comparison to the scope and impact of the phenomena, remains sparse, peaking in times of crisis and loss in the community. And while Columbia's Counseling and Psychological Services and Barnard's Furman Counseling Center show marked progress from spike to spike in their programs, students express perpetual discontent with the attitudes of school and student towards mental illness. The main recurring points are as follows: access and advertising of such services remain inadequate, stigma against seeking help and discussing conditions openly persists, and the services offered, though expansive, may not be adequately individualistic to account for the case-specific natures of these largely opaque disorders. Apologists argue that we have one of the best systems in the Ivy League, and it is highly utilized, so the lack of accessibility—long waits for non-vital cases—may merely be a symptom of success. Perhaps the stigma around depression is so culturally ingrained as to be intractable by just the university's efforts. Maybe it is even less prevalent at such an enlightened institution—despite some efforts to quantify the perceptions of depression by this paper last year, it remains impossible to test the truth of that claim. And you just can't fix everyone's problems, hence our voluntary—and, in rare cases, involuntary—leaves of absence for students to seek more personal, longer-term help. Naïve or impractical though I may be, I refuse to accept this attitude. University and student initiative can curb the longstanding hindrances of advancing to a new plateau in our battle with mental illness. It may, however, involve risks we do not wish to take. At this point, it behooves me to recognize that a huge part of the fear and stigma of depression comes from the isolating feeling that one cannot articulate his or her condition. How can I make prescriptions for change, speak for the needs of others, when they are isolated and silent? I do not speak for all, but I have lived alongside, battled against, and, in the past, lost to mental illness—my own and others'—for the bulk of my life. I only hope that in advocating the services that could have helped me and those in my life—maybe even saved some—I can raise points that may serve a small portion of silent sufferers. The bulk of the stigma comes from the fact that many do not have a great grasp of mental illness and do not feel comfortable discussing it. Groups like ROOTEd have in the past provided wonderful forums for discussion of such issues, but attendance relative to the campus population remains low. Larger events—hosted, advertised, and/or aggressively sponsored by well established groups and campus institutions—could do a great deal to draw depression out of the shadows. But it is hard to think of a group that would have a vested interest in approaching such a taboo subject. And even if we did somehow increase the campus dialogue, Columbia's eight-session limit—in all but dire cases—and lack of follow-up on referrals would still drive away many in need. This is an understandable policy, given the need of a small staff—33 in CPS as of April 2009, serving approximately 25,000 students, versus Furman's 16 serving 2,300—to address myriad cases. CPS also has a valid case, saying that if a student is so unstable, he may be a danger and a liability to himself, the college, and those around him. Still, we must ask, does the alienation of the revolving door policy pose a greater threat than would indefinite treatments and spending hikes to increase staff? By driving away those stable enough to stay but still in need of a connection and understanding on a regular basis, we may ultimately find the costs to be higher than currently expected. I offer one possible solution to access, stigma, and individualization—a variation of Nightline, the fantastic anonymous peer-counseling phone service run on campus. Imagine a small body of well trained student counselors, going beyond the phone and developing personal relationships with students referred by CPS and Furman staff. This would allow a genuine connection, a continued and individualized relationship for those who are stable but not well, a way to break isolation apart from simply lumping sufferers together in support groups. I may be fool enough to imagine such an idyllic system, but not so much as to miss its massive legal ramifications. It would be a liability. It risks failure and damage to both parties. But so does the current system with its understaffed revolving door. I commend the work CPS does and the lives they save, but I cannot abide by the thought of more students still suffering needlessly. I refuse to believe that there exists no way to help those overlooked and in need. My thoughts are surely flawed and simplistic. So help me and let us together devise something better. Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff