Column | Feb. 9

A mental health network

Since I took a year off, I openly tell my friends that I struggle with anxiety and depression, and talk without shame about my regular sessions with a therapist. The number of people who have approached and opened up to me as a result is astounding. I’ve now heard countless tales of struggles with obsessive fears and mood swings; of mental health issues hidden from family and close friends who might not understand; of wanting help but feeling afraid, cautious or skeptical of the options offered by the University.

I do my best to listen, to offer my own experiences and to advise with the limited skills I have picked up from my therapy sessions. But I’ve received no formal training and am far from equipped to offer them a long-term solution, as much as I wish I could. This is where Counseling and Psychological Services should come in, but for a variety of reasons I feel reluctant to refer anyone there except in the case of absolute emergency.

Many have told me that they have been to CPS and found it unhelpful, dismissive or discouraging. This is not a good sign. I can’t speak for everyone, but what I’ve heard, combined with my own experiences with CPS, leaves me with a medium-to-poor view of the current system. To someone foreign to any kind of therapy, CPS is intimidating. To get an appointment requires a large amount of foresight and stressful scheduling. There is no system for booking continuous therapy sessions, as you cannot book more than a few weeks in advance, and thus it is hard to develop the kind of personal bond with a single therapist that is so vital to successful treatment. As I know from personal experience, the last thing you want to do when you are struggling mentally is to have to face administrative challenges and fears about whether or not you can even get an appointment, and to feel as though you are simply being temporarily patched up and then asked to leave after your 30 minutes are up.

This is not to say that there aren’t dedicated, skilled and compassionate counselors working at CPS. The problem of students suffering and yet not getting help cannot be entirely blamed on the University as an institution. We can’t expect the University to foot the bill for every individual student’s psychotherapy. But an integrated approach, starting at the student body level, is desperately needed to help a campus full of high-achieving developing adults as they face some of the most turbulent times in their lives.

So here is what I propose: a focus on creating a mental health network, beginning with mental health peer advisers (trained and carefully selected, following the SHARE model), who act as the bridge to the CPS counselors and services. Then CPS, clear in stating the extent and limitations of the services it offers, will do what it can before facilitating and encouraging referrals to full time clinicians in the area who can offer the kind of regular and focused attention that so many people here need.

Perhaps some people currently utilize the Peer Health Advisers, or their residential college advisers as a resource, but these systems are either not promoted enough or do not have specific enough mental health-related goals. After three years at this school, I didn’t even know that the PHA program existed until a week ago. We need an organization which specifically trains students in basic psychological counseling techniques, and has at hand accessible student “counselors” who can listen to those who want help, talk through their concerns and then connect them with a true professional.

A peer mental health group could help to personalize CPS, perhaps by connecting certain mental health peers with each individual CPS counselor, and creating a referral system. “Oh, go chat with Jean at CPS — she’s great and specializes in …” Mental health peers — familiar faces from classes or social settings, who by virtue of publicly acknowledging their experiences with mental health would begin to alleviate stigma — could be the missing link that allows people to feel comfortable and safe enough to admit that they are struggling, and to seek help in an informal and less intimidating way. At the same time, CPS could change to accommodate the needs of students by getting constant feedback from mental health peers about the most common needs and thus the most useful resources to offer.

Princeton is a highly stressful place, but mental health education and treatment needs to be more personalized, friendly and individual, not institutional. The system as it is does not help enough people, and short-term campaigns such as the USG’s Mental Health Week are great, but not sufficient.

However it happens, the system needs to change. The idea of peer mental health advisers and a fundamental strengthening of Princeton’s network of mental health and well-being services, from students to CPS counselors to private clinicians in the area, is just one possible solution.

But the next time a sophomore comes to me depressed, desperate and in tears, telling me she has no one to turn to and wants to leave school, I want to be able to tell her, with confidence, that I can help.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

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