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Mental health care difficult for Mercer students to access due to stigma and lack of availability

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mental health black and whiteIn a typical week, Dorothy Gasparro sits down with twelve to fifteen Mercer students to help them work through personal and emotional problems.

Gasparro, Ed.S., LPC, NCC, is the Senior Counselor at Mercer County Community College’s Counseling & Wellness Center; her job is to provide therapy, skills instruction, and support to struggling students.

But it’s not the students who seek out therapy that Gasparro tells The VOICE she is most worried about.

In the week of September 22, five students were referred to Gasparro for counseling services by concerned professors or community members, but none of them ever attended therapy.

Gasparro asks: “Why [did they not get help]? What was going through their heads? […] If counseling wasn’t seen as such a weakness, then who would deny free help?”

She believes that these reluctant students are kept from seeking help by internalized public stigma against mental illness—“they do not want to be labeled as ‘different’ or ‘broken.’”

According to Amy Lenhart, chair of the American College Counseling Association (ACCA) Community College Task Force that conducted the survey of 294 community college counselors in 2011:  “Despite mounting mental health problems among students at community colleges, fewer than 13 percent provide psychiatric services for students, finds a January survey by the American College Counseling Association.By contrast, 56 percent of four-year colleges and universities offer on-campus psychiatric services.“

Lenhart, quoted on the American Psychological Association website, goes on to explain the findings saying: “While 68 percent of community colleges do offer some sort of personal counseling, the lack of psychiatric care is worrisome since many community college students are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety disorders and other mental health problems compared with their traditional university student counterparts.”

NAMI coverIn fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) 2012 survey of college student mental health, which examined data from 765 college students, of whom 19 percent were from community colleges,

The most commonly reported mental health diagnoses within the NAMI findings were for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and PTSD.

The APA says that women are twice as likely as men to face clinical depression in their lifetime, but disturbed young males are the ones almost entirely responsible for acting out in violence, such as the two Virginia Tech mass shootings, and the attack in Arizona that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed several others.

Jared Loughner, who was convicted in the Arizona shooting spree, was a former community college student. After the attack, particular scrutiny was directed at the officials at Pima Community College where, The New York Times reported: “After the release of detailed reports the college kept of Mr. Loughner’s bizarre outbursts and violent Internet fantasies, the focus has turned to whether it did all it could to prevent his apparent descent into explosive violence.”

The Times continued: “In September, Pima suspended Mr. Loughner and told him not to return without a psychologist’s letter certifying that he posed no danger. But it took no steps to mandate that he have a psychiatric evaluation, which in Arizona is easier than in many states.”


Could the next Jared Loughner be studying at Mercer? If so, would the college be able to get that student help before the student hurt himself or others? The answers to these questions are not clear.

What is clear is that students do not leave their mental health issues outside the classroom door when they come in.

“I had a conflict during my first semester,” said the anonymous student. “One of the professors was brand new and I couldn’t come to any understanding with him, and we kind of bashed heads a lot.”

He continued: “It was very hard for me to come out and say, ‘Hey I have issues and I can’t deal with so much stress and anxiety,’ and eventually I just left the class because I couldn’t handle it.”

Leaving class may temporarily defuse a situation but it also takes one more day out of the student’s education and disrupts the other learners.

Then there are times when the student chooses not to leave but their behavior escalates to the point that violates the Code of Conduct. When that happens, they are sent to the Assistant Dean of Students John Simone.

In the most severe cases, students are mandated to attend counseling. Out of 65 students seen by Dean Simone for behavioral issues in the past year, he told The VOICE that between 35 and 40 were required to attend therapy.

Though the Jared Loughner’s of the world are the ones who get the media attention for their extreme acts, the highest cost in terms of human suffering comes in the form of thousands of college students in need of mental health care.

Mental Health QuoteTHE REAL COSTS

In October of 2010 The VOICE reported on a spate of student suicides that claimed 3 lives within the first weeks of the fall semester. One student threw himself in front of the high speed Accela train, another hung himself, the third was found in the water in Mercer County Park.

The costs can be measured not only in human lives, but also in missed days of class and in absences or withdrawals that can impede a student’s chance of completing courses and completing their degree.

In a survey of 55 Mercer students, The VOICE found that 9 percent of students identified as having suffered from serious mental health problems. Of the 16 students who said they had faced mental illness, 14 said they had had to withdraw from a class as a direct result of their mental health.

One Mercer student who responded to the survey but asked to remain anonymous told The VOICE: “In one of my classes my second semester, a lot of times the pressure was so much I just had to leave, I couldn’t be there. Instead of being in class a lot of times I’d just be crying because I couldn’t handle it.”

Another student, who also asked for anonymity, said: “There are a lot of times when I get very frustrated if I’m not able to keep up with something. If I don’t understand something I get very angry and storm out. I confuse a lot of my professors and friends because they don’t understand too well.”


According to Dean of Liberal Arts & Communication, Robin Schore, “Mercer has lots of students with very serious problems, and we do the best we can to help them.”

Faculty say they are on the front lines and often ill equipped to help students who they can see are suffering.

According to Psychology Professor Karen Bearce, Bearce said that the psychology faculty are often approached by troubled students for help. This semester, so far four students have approached Prof. Bearce while in crisis. Bearce helps the best she can, but isn’t trained as a counselor.

“Having only one licensed counselor at Mercer is opening ourselves up to crisis,” Prof. Bearce told The VOICE. She said Mercer should have between 4 and 7 counselors for a college of its size.

Lack of access to resources is not the only problem troubled students need to overcome. Two students that Prof. Bearce recently walked to the Counseling Center were seriously concerned about the financial cost of therapy. They wonder, “Why am I even talking about my problems if I can’t afford therapy?” Prof. Bearce said.

She continued: “Mercer needs to market resources so that students and faculty know how to use them.” Especially important is making sure students know that financial troubles don’t prevent them from attending therapy or other resources.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is allowing more students to stay on their parents’ health insurance for longer (age 26). Further, the ACA requires low cost comprehensive insurance be made available to all students, and all ACA approved plans must pay for preventive care, mental health care and contraception.


Access and information are crucial, in the end, however, the question of whether or not students seek the mental health care they need still hinges on their willingness to speak up despite the stigmas that are attached.

According to a 2010 meta-analysis by Dr. James Livingston and Dr. Jennifer Boyd at the University of California, San Francisco, there is a “striking” negative link between internalized stigma and “hope, self-esteem, and empowerment.” People who felt the most stigmatized were also most likely to have serious mental symptoms and to reject treatment.

Another  student interviewed by The VOICE, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and spent 11 months in various mental hospitals.

“I know that as soon as somebody hears that, the first thing that they think is ‘Oh she’s crazy,’” she said.

The idea that there is something wrong with people dealing with mental health issues is born out of “ignorance and lack of understanding,” said Gasparro.

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