Administrators at the Vaden Health Center said there has been a steady increase in the amount of students using Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and other similar services offered by the University, which they attribute to a decreasing stigmatization toward mental health on campus.
They said this trend is positive, and that they hope to expand student access to the services, but also acknowledged that the issue of mental health might be stressed amongst Stanford students in the wrong way.
“I think we overpathologize, constantly sending messages here to students about how stressed they are, how they lack resiliency and how they have unbalanced lives,” said Carole Pertofsky, the director of wellness and health promotion services at the Vaden Health Center. “I think a piece of that is true. I don’t think all of that is true.”
Professor William Damon of the Stanford School of Education cited having a sense of purpose as the key to maintaining mental health in college students in an article in the Palo Alto Weekly. He said his research has indicated that most incoming students lack such a sense, causing them to become stressed out.
“Meaning comes from who am I, what is my inner world about and how do I craft a life based on that?” she said. “It changes; it shifts.”
Ron Albucher, director of CAPS, said it might be harder for students to find their sense of purpose today because “there are entire fields of study that didn’t exist a generation ago. All of this adds complexity and can be confusing and at times overwhelming.” This could increase the amount of stress faced by college students of today, he said.
A sense of purpose, according to Albucher, must not be heavily influenced by what others want for the student, but instead come from a student’s own discovery of their passions and interests.
“It must come from within,” he said. “That whole developmental process is important for this age range.”
He cited societal focus on achievements and accomplishments over resiliency as playing a role in the stress of college students. According to Albucher, resiliency is key to maintaining mental health.
“That can start as early as preschool, basically teaching people that failure is a part of growth,” Albucher said. He added that this would allow students to cope with achieving less than expected.
Pertofsky also cited parental stress — particularly in goal-setting for most students — as a major factor in students’ stress. She said, if anything, this has only increased with the growing use of technology to connect students to home.
The Stanford Duck Syndrome — in which students appear calm on the surface, but are in reality extremely stressed — seems to play a negative part in stress on campus as well, but not the largest part, according to Vaden administrators.
“I really encourage people to be honest and open and say, ‘This is at times a really stressful place,’ but you don’t need to just sit with that stress,” Albucher said. “You can get help.”
Access to mental health services is increasing at Stanford, but still has several issues, according to Vaden administrators. Albucher, who will be meeting with a group from the ASSU Undergraduate Senate to discuss access to services, said that that the seven satellite clinics of Vaden were created with this issue in mind, to open up access to mental health services.
Albucher cited lack of resources as one particular issue. He advocates increasing resources in order to increase the amount of help that Vaden and CAPS can provide to students. Akshay Gopalan, a counselor at the Bridge Peer Counseling, encourages students to use resources such as the Bridge even if their issues seem minor.
Both Albucher and Gopalan cited dorms, along with their corresponding RAs, as being a key environment where students can learn more about mental health and the services offered on campus.
“The University should partner up more with student groups,” Gopalan said, particularly advocating increased mental health training for RAs that is focused on role-playing.
Charlotte Poplawski, the head teaching assistant for the Pursuit of Happiness course taught by Pertofsky, said mental health has gained steam amongst college students in recent years.
“It’s something that’s getting more attention now,” Poplawski said. “People are not as afraid to talk about it.”