For the past 23 years I’ve had the privilege of working in the counseling center of a small Catholic University in South Florida. As a recent retiree I can offer some reflections on the mental health state of the young and not so young students in most universities throughout the United States and indeed the rest of the developed world. Recently emerging countries working towards democracy inevitably face a specific set of issues, and mental health may not yet be at the top of their agendas. Until I began working at the university I had no idea as to the reality of the mental health of many students attending colleges and universities.
During the 14 years that I worked as Director of the Center I attended national mental health Conferences in the United State and Canada for Directors of Counseling Centers. The Directors came from US, Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada and several countries in the Middle East. I had access to national databases that confirmed a gradual increase in the severity of students’ mental health problems. When they wisely sought out assistance to help them cope with their issues it soon became apparent that they could be suffering from depression and or anxiety and sometimes the underlying problem could be that they had been physically or sexually abused. In these situations I frequently had to remind myself and the counselors I supervised that these students had coped with many of these issues for several years so we needed to work gently with them and not expect a miracle in a few weeks. Many students arrive at Universities with medication to help them cope with anxiety, depression, and ADHD especially, so like most universities we employed a psychiatrist for the students and we worked directly with this psychiatrist, who was generally loved and respected by the students.
Of course the obvious question remains, “Why did the mental health of students deteriorate so significantly over the last decade or so?” No adequate answers have been found but there are a few conclusions being reached in the available literature: anxiety, abuse and depression can stem from the breakdown of the family unit and the subsequent lack of supervision and financial resources. Boundaries and social norms are lacking and it appears the sky’s the limit so of course there are unforeseen consequences: excessive drinking and drug use as well as unexpected pregnancies when there is little structure at home or in society in general.
Few students have any spiritual practice but frequently admitted to being raised Catholic or in another tradition that at one time in their lives was important. That admission opened the door to the possibility of attending Mass occasionally, participating in meditation or a mindfulness practice that would be another tool to help them cope better with their issues.
On a more personal note, I was the oldest counselor working in the Center for several years so inevitably older students requested an older counselor because as one woman said, “I don’t want to tell my issues to someone who is the age of my daughter.” Of course I never disclosed my age but obviously I looked older that her daughter! My experience has been that being an older counselor is one of the few professions where being a few years older is very valuable; the expectation being that with age comes wisdom!
In conclusion, while I worked at a Catholic university not all students were Catholic, and many came from all over the world, including several who hailed from the islands of the Caribbean. It was a very enriching and humbling experience to help these students sort out their issues while honoring their cultures and traditions. The goal was always to ensure that a student had a reason to live and could envision a peaceful future following their chosen career.
About a year ago I felt that it was time for me to take a step back from working full time so six months ago I retired from this work, but I will always be thankful that I had the honor of facilitating healthier and happier lives for many men and women who are now productive members of society.