For legal reasons, some names have been changed. When real names are used, last names are included.
Isabel runs her hand through the ends of her hair for the 14th time. Her eyes are lit up and she’s smiling and nodding as if she were talking about her senior capstone.
“I wish I could say I see things that aren’t there and have it have less of a connotation,” she said. “It’s scary. I haven’t even told my best friends.”
Despite her outwardly positive attitude, Isabel, a senior history major, is facing what she called the most debilitating struggle of her life. She started hallucinating after she was sexually assaulted for the second time in 2013. The incident caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to her counselor and psychiatrist at Tuttleman Counseling Services.
“It’s so pervasive into everything in your life,” Isabel said. “If it gets bad enough, it can stop your life.”
In recent years, mental health has begun to be discussed more openly in an effort to reduce stigmas from conditions such as anxiety and depression. In college, when many are busy networking and solidifying their career path, some students are learning to cope with their own mental health as well. Several of those students agreed that while Temple offers a number of support systems through administration, addressing mental health relies just as much on establishing an inclusive environment – they said that responsibility falls on not only faculty, but also their peers.
NORMALIZING MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS
Tuttleman Counseling Services, located on the fifth floor of 1800 Liacouras Walk, houses Main Campus’ most extensive resources for mental health. This includes individual counseling, group counseling, psychiatry and the Self-Help Center, a space run by senior psychology students that allows students to treat their own symptoms.
In the 2012-13 academic year, TCS provided individual counseling to 2,474 students, according to TCS records. As of April 17, TCS has already passed this number with 2,777 students in the 2013-14 year.
Director of TCS John DiMino attributed some of this increase to additional funding and, subsequently, staff.
“The longer students have to wait for services, the less likely they are to show up to their initial intake appointment,” DiMino said.
He said since TCS hired more staff members, the average wait time between a walk-in appointment and the first counseling session is between one and two weeks. DiMino called this wait time short enough to help more students receive necessary counseling.
During DiMino’s 18 years at Temple, he said the number of students who utilize Tuttleman’s services has quadrupled, much of which he attributes to advances in medicine.
“Improvements in psychotropic medications have allowed more students to come to college who wouldn’t previously have been able to,” DiMino said.
In addition, he cited factors like lowered stigmas surrounding mental health issues and new stressors in students’ lives, like student debt.
Sharon, a junior fine arts major diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, agreed with DiMino that the millennial generation faces unique difficulties. She also cited debt and the economy, saying she felt a “constant state of fear” about the rest of her life.
For students who need immediate help, Tuttleman offers emergency mental health triages that extend past the center’s normal walk-in hours for students who feel they are in crisis.
The Wellness Resource Center, located in the basement of Mitten Hall, also offers immediate attention to students who feel their health – mental or otherwise – is at risk.
Kim Chestnut, the WRC’s director, said these meetings are called “health consultations.”
“We haven’t entirely normalized mental health conditions,” Chestnut said.
Chestnut said WRC aims to provide validation and support for those who are suffering from any mental illness and to allow students to develop a treatment plan tailored to their individual needs.
While WRC does not provide long-term treatment, it does refer students to TCS or outside services if the student feels he or she need consistent help.
“[An issue with mental health] is normal,” Chesnut said. “We encourage [students] to get support.”
In contrast to TCS’s number of patients, Chestnut said just 37 students have used WRC for a health consultation so far this year, but said that number grows each year.
“[Lack of awareness about our services] is a challenge we face every year,” Chestnut said. “We try to communicate and reach out.”
“THEY MADE ME GET RE-DIAGNOSED”
Isabel has been seeing a counselor through Temple’s Tuttleman Counseling Services since 2013. She said she attends individual and group counseling sessions once per week.
“Just to be with people who deal with the same problems that you do makes you feel a lot less alone,” she said.
Isabel also meets with a psychiatrist there, who prescribed her with medication for depression, anxiety, psychosis and irregular sleep patterns. She said she worried about impacting her brain, but didn’t feel like she had another option.
“It was kind of like sink or swim,” Isabel said. “I needed to try something different.”
Isabel said she considered giving up her prescriptions because psychotropic medications typically take 4-6 weeks to start taking effect, but her symptoms have since become manageable.
However, Isabel acknowledged that prescription medication is not always the most appropriate way to treat mental health conditions, and added that she is “looking forward to the day [she doesn’t] have to take it anymore.”
Andrew, a philosophy major who is diagnosed with clinical depression and borderline personality disorder, said he thinks healthcare providers should be extremely conscientious when prescribing medication for patients.
“They do great things for other people, but it’s a bad idea for me to have pills around that I can take a lot of,” Andrew said. “[When] I took meds, I tried to kill myself with them.”
In Spring 2011, Andrew spent a night in the hospital after an attempted suicide. He visited TCS after the attempt, but he said he did not find its services adequate after what he had been through. After taking a year off from pursuing his undergraduate degree at Temple and spending a year at the Community College of Philadelphia, he is now set to graduate in 2015.
Andrew said Temple allowed him to return due to his mental health condition, despite his previously low grade point average for which he was on academic probation.
However, he found the readmission process difficult.
“They made me get re-diagnosed,” Andrew said. “The provision for me coming back was that I was seeing a therapist and psychiatrist and that I got prescribed medication and could prove that I was taking it.”
Despite the requirement, Andrew said he won’t take the pills he was forced to have prescribed in order to be granted readmission. While he said he does constantly fear having to leave Temple, he said he feels much healthier off medication and isn’t willing to compromise that.
“One of the best things I can do is write a really good paper because I have a really distinct voice,” Andrew said. “[Medication] essentially kills that voice. Fact is, I’m doing really well, and if that’s not enough for Temple, I don’t really know what is.”
Chestnut said for non-medicinal treatment, WRC offers various activities on a larger scale. Events like Walk a Mile in Her Shoes and the “Vagina Monologues” provide support to students, especially women like Isabel who are recovering from sexual abuse, by allowing them to act as activists for their issues. Both events drew significant student participation and interest this year.
WHEN TO DRAW THE LINE
Students agreed that their schoolwork has been directly affected by mental health issues.
Sharon preemptively took a semester off after her ongoing struggle with bulimia nervosa began to negatively impact her grades. She said even though her professors were sympathetic to her situation, “there was only so much they could do.”
Alexander deVaron, a theory professor at the Boyer College of Music, said he does his best to accommodate students who struggle with mental health issues, but finds it difficult to know what exactly a student needs.
“As a teacher, it’s a little bit hard to know when to draw the line,” deVaron said. “If somebody comes in and says they’ve got to have kidney surgery and they’re going to miss three weeks of school, it’s completely straightforward. With psychological difficulties, it’s so much more difficult to read. I try to do what’s most helpful to the students.”
Temple’s Disability Resources and Services exists to define this line by assisting students with disabilities, including mental illness, with various services such as test-taking accommodations.
However, students have cited difficulties in maintaining confidentiality when providing accommodation letters from DRS to faculty. According to social work student David Harris, it is the university’s “unofficial policy” that students must provide letters from DRS to their professors in person, which sometimes results in initiating private conversations with the students.
In March, Harris filed a grievance against the university for the discrimination he said he received from a professor and
DRS Director Aaron Spector when requesting extra time on an assignment due to his diagnosed bipolar disorder.
Harris said his professor called him “an irritant.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights is currently investigating DRS, and Harris said he plans to file suit if the department finds DRS to be non-compliant with students’ needs.
‘IT FREAKS PEOPLE OUT’
Students agreed that creating a comfortable environment for those with mental health concerns is the responsibility of their peers as well as of administration.
“I’ve had a lot of problems with self-harm,” Isabel said. “I’ve never really been able to go to anyone about it because it scares people. When I self harm, I know what I’m thinking and I know how I feel. And I usually feel embarrassed and sad about it after I do it. I want to hear, ‘It’s OK, you did it, and you can still stop doing it. Just because you did it today doesn’t mean that you have to do it tomorrow.’”
Isabel said that confiding in her friends tends to result in their fear for her safety and risk of suicide. She said she knows they want to keep her safe, but she wishes there could be better understanding of what she’s dealing with among students her age.
“It freaks people out,” Isabel said.
During National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Sharon said she felt that although some sororities that hosted awareness initiatives had good intentions, their efforts weren’t addressing issues like bulimia nervosa from an informed perspective.
Sororities posted flyers with taglines like, “Zero isn’t a size” and “Embrace your curves” near the end of February to spread awareness about eating disorders.
“I felt like it made the issue smaller than it was,” Sharon said. “ It just minimizes it into an issue of not liking what you see when you look into a mirror or ‘embracing your curves,’ when I used [my eating disorder] as self-medication. I’ve seen people die from it. It’s more complex than that.”
Andrew said he experienced an unexpected reaction during his time at the Community College of Philadelphia. He said though he felt comfortable sharing that he had a disorder, his peers “coddled” him to almost a demeaning extent.
“They thought I was oversensitive, and that’s not what it is,” Andrew said.
ACCEPTANCE AS A SOLUTION
Owen, a junior music major, has a disorder, but said he feels he is not always included in the conversation. His Asperger Syndrome makes social interaction challenging at times.
Owen said that for much of his life, he struggled with self-criticism because he didn’t fit in with his peers, which eventually resulted in a depression diagnosis. He said it wasn’t until recently that he began to accept his Asperger’s as a part of himself.
The ability to take ownership of his mental health status has been an incredibly empowering experience, Owen said. Students agreed that the lessons they have learned through their experience with mental health problems make them proud, even if their diagnosis isn’t viewed positively.
The mental health discussion has become more far-reaching in every direction, and while some still regard mental health conditions as weaknesses, students like Isabel, Sharon, Andrew and Owen disagree.
Students with the same diagnosis experience their situations differently and have varying needs, as well as opinions on mental health treatment. However, students agreed that a societal shift in attitude would be one of the most positive changes for the mental health community. It is most important, students said, that their peers don’t consider them lesser because of their personal experiences with various mental health issues.
“It’s abnormal, but I don’t think it’s a disease that needs to be cured,” Owen said. “I think it’s been essentially shaping me into who I am.”
Grace Holleran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students who feel they are in need of mental health support can contact Tuttleman Counseling Services at 215-204-7276.
The Suicide/Crisis Intervention Hotline for Philadelphia is 215-686-4420.