Section: News

Destigmatizing mental health issues

Destigmatizing mental health issues

Courtesy of the Counseling Center and Kristen Huffman

by Maya Kaufman

“I was overwhelmed with anxiety, and I felt like I was drowning.” Amy Young ’16, formerly of the Class of 2015, is one of a handful of students who each year find that mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) adversely affect their ability to thrive at Kenyon. Although Kenyon offers a variety of resources, a number of students have found mental health conditions too overwhelming to remain at school and have withdrawn for periods of time.

During the first semester of her freshman year, Young went to see a Kenyon counselor. “I learned that going home was an option, and I learned that I wouldn’t be penalized for it,” she said. “And as soon as I found that out, I knew that was what I had to do.”

Young took the second semester of her freshman year off but during that time “wasn’t really addressing the problems that had arisen,” she said. Young was diagnosed with depression and prescribed an anti-depressant medication in the spring of 2013, during her sophomore year. She took another medical leave of absence for the fall 2013 semester.

Director of Counseling Services Patrick Gilligan said students with mental health conditions withdraw when their “suffering has gotten to be so significant that it begins to compromise their ability to participate in their life here the way they really want to.”

A member of the Class of 2017, who asked to remain anonymous, decided to take a semester off after the anxiety brought about by a rigorous course-load and side effects of an anti-depressant proved unmanageable.

“My parents and I decided that it made sense to step back and have a semester where I could regain some emotional stability,” she said. The student spoke with Dean of Students Henry Toutain and her academic advisor, who she found out had also taken time off from his schooling. “It really made me feel like I was making the right decision once I realized that it wasn’t so taboo,” she said.

Although mental health conditions themselves can cause students to struggle, there may be aspects of Kenyon that exacerbate symptoms.

“Kenyon really is so small, and it’s so isolated,” the anonymous sophomore said. “It really does make you feel claustrophobic and a little lonely.”

Students are permitted to request personal or medical leaves of absence, for which they must submit a declaration-of-withdrawal form to either Toutain or Dean for Academic Advising and Support Hoi Ning Ngai.

The College has a mandatory withdrawal process for students who endanger other individuals or have conditions that prove unmanageable, but, according to Gilligan, the College has “never invoked this policy.”

Toutain said he frequently agrees with students who request time off.

“Although this is a place that is devoted to teaching and learning, this is also a place that puts a very high premium on health,” Toutain said. “You may … be dealing with a health issue that really is going to be damaging if you don’t address it currently.”

Roberto Levin, formerly of the class of 2017, found that his ADHD, in addition to stress-induced anxiety, was affecting his academic performance, but he initially resisted taking time off. After he and his parents spoke with Toutain and Director of Student Accessibility and Support Services Erin Salva, he decided to take a year off.

“They knew [taking time off] was best for me even though I didn’t know what was best for me,” Levin said. “They obviously had seen people like me.”

Levin was discouraged by his grades. Additionally, his anxiety caused his speech impediment to return, which caused him even more stress. While at Kenyon, he saw a counselor twice a week.

“[The Counseling Center] really helped me keep my head in the game … so that I’d have a high-enough morale level to actually get things done,” he said. However, Levin was discouraged by the lack of nearby resources, such as a speech therapist.

Young, who was on conditional enrollment upon returning to Kenyon in spring 2014 and was required to see Gilligan, also found the Counseling Center beneficial. “He’s just been fantastic when I felt I was slipping, when I was getting really worried about something, whenever I felt like I was going crazy,” Young said. “Everyone [at the Counseling Center] is just an incredible and very, very positive influence.”

In fall 2014, Young gave a TEDxKenyonCollege talk entitled “Beyond Understanding” about her experience with depression.

The anonymous sophomore did not see a counselor prior to taking time off, saying that the Counseling Center needs to do a better job of advertising itself. “I feel like it’s kind of an unspoken thing to go to the Counseling Center at Kenyon,” she said. “I think a lot of people I know that go to Kenyon would benefit from going there, but they just don’t know that it’s an option. I didn’t know that it was an option.”

In the fall 2014 semester, 549 students visited the Counseling Center, about 34 percent of the student body. According to Gilligan, about 10 percent of college students seek counseling nationally; on campuses with fewer than 1,500 students, the average is slightly over 18 percent.

Kenyon’s counseling center also has a psychiatrist who comes in once every two weeks.

While mental health conditions can affect students’ Kenyon experiences, Tim Jurney ’15, a Peer Counselor, emphasizes the importance of not marginalizing those who experience such conditions. “I’m always really cautious about creating a dichotomy between students with mental health issues and without, because all students experience it,” Jurney said.

President Sean Decatur cautioned against discounting mental health. “Mental health issues are fundamentally health issues,” he said.

Toutain echoed the importance of destigmatizing mental health conditions. “To the degree that we can speak more honestly … about issues of mental health, we’re all better off,” Toutain said. “Whether it’s physical or whether it’s mental health, it’s challenging to be a Kenyon student.”


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