Jessica Perez has many responsibilities on her plate in her day to day, not only as a Mercer student, but also as a mother and as a worker. Perez is sophomore studying Digital Film. She says, “I get very stressed out with all my classes and then I need to take care of my kid. But the worst is that I had to take classes that aren’t related to my major. This just brings more stress and anxiety to my life.”
Perez’s case is typical for community college students, most of whom are trying to get their degree while also engaged in some other time-consuming aspect of life, such as working, parenting, or taking care of a sick family member. Managing stressors is key, but often stress levels exceed what is manageable putting community college students at particularly high risk for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
All four year, and many two year colleges have health centers with counselors who can help students struggling with physical and mental health problems. Of New Jersey’s 18 community colleges, seven have health centers of some sort, Mercer is among those that do not.
Mercer does, however, have one licensed counselor, Dorothy Gasparro, and two other counselors who work with her, Martha Gunning and Fred Weiner. Because three people can’t take care of the needs of more than 8,000 students, most of the time they offer students who seek help assistance in finding it elsewhere.
With so much going on in Perez’s life, she decided it was time to see a private psychiatrist, who is helping her balance all of her roles. She told The VOICE she knew about the counselors on campus but didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to them.
The VOICE conducted an anonymous health survey of 50 students. Seventy percent of those surveyed said they have problems with anxiety and 65 percent say they suffer from depression.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and can lead suffers to suicide. Close to 800,000 people commit suicide every year according to the World Health Organization. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24–the most common ages for the college demographic–as reported by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The numbers are only growing. In 2014 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide rates had increased every year between 1999 and the year of the study.
The epidemic has been hitting New Jersey particularly hard. In August 2015, Governor Chris Christie signed the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, which was inspired by a New Jersey high school track star and Ivy League college student who took her own life.
The Prevention Act took effect for the 2016-2017 school year, and requires colleges and universities to have licensed health care professionals who specialize in reducing student suicides available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Act requires schools to post information on student suicides and attempted suicides on their websites annually.
Although Mercer does not offer this kind of support, they do have on the website, under the Students Services tab, another tab called Suicide Prevention. Here they provide the counselor’s phone numbers and offices. They have also posted the phone numbers for the New Jersey Hopeline, the Mercer County Helpline and 911.
Cierra Ruiz is a Graphic Design major who says that she gets bursts of anxiety when the demands of the classwork she needs to get done combined with the mental strain of her regular job prove too overwhelming.
“I would go and talk to someone if we have a mental health center on campus, where I can just walk in and talk to someone, like a friendly place where to chat with an expert about mental issues,” Ruiz says.
As Mercer’s Medical Laboratory Technology Program Coordinator Lisa Shave told The VOICE, “We only have three persons dealing with this for both campuses. We realize we didn’t have a central location where we could pretty much spread the news about health and safety.”
Shave also mentioned an ad-hoc committee being lead by Andrew Millin, the Medical Office Assistant Coordinator. She said: “We are researching opportunities to bring licensed counselors to campus…We are reaching out to master’s degree programs that offer counseling, where they might have an internship opportunity and they can come to our campus and start to have open rooms for students to go and talk. A safe place.”
Nursing professor Adena Romeo-Ratliff told The VOICE that there was action being taken in order to bring mental health awareness to Mercer.
“We are creating this new Committee of Health and Safety, where the nursing program is actually partnering with the security staff to come up with ways we can make the campus safer and try to put together resources, so we are starting to have these conversations now,” Professor Romeo-Ratliff said.
Elizabeth Mizerek, the Nursing Program Coordinator, is set to lead the committee, according to Shave.
Mercer’s Health Professions Coordinator, Cynthia Matyas has been working at Mercer for 18 years and says she would love to have a nurse’s office on campus, but that she is aware that funding presents a problem.
When The VOICE asked her how she helps students who are having difficulty with a personal or academic problem she said, “If I’m working with a student, my first goal is to establish trust and relationship.” She continued, “Once that happens, we can make an action plan. That often includes supplementary resources. For example, if a student has lost a parent, we will provide individual support and will also refer them to a local grief support group.”
International student, Erlym Placeres, who is majoring in Business Administration, told The VOICE “As international students we don’t have any benefits like US citizens, so we need to find out our way to affordable health. If the school doesn’t provide this service, it’s hard when you get sick and you miss classes, because this can lead you to lose your visa.”
Dr. Bettina Caluori, English professor and Assistant Dean of the Honors Program, spoke with The VOICE about the lack of a health center on campus, the impact that has on students, and how faculty members feel about that. She said, “Of course it’s frustrating [as a faculty member], I know students pay for a semester and it’s hard earned money, and then if something happens that requires antibiotics and they can’t get it, then the whole semester is gone, and there is no way we can help them. It’s not only a problem we see in the college but overall in the country.”
The VOICE reached out to Janet Haag, Executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) Mercer County division in order to learn more about what they do to help the community, “We host classes and support groups for family members and individuals. We do presentations in the community to promote greater understanding of mental health issues, early diagnosis, and treatment, and to reduce stigma.”
Haag also mentioned that NAMI is interested in connecting with someone at MCCC for doing a screening of a documentary on suicide. “It is a critical issue and one that has touched our local community all too often recently,” Haag says.
The New Jersey Youth Suicide Report 2016 shows that in the two year period prior to the report, 145 male and 48 females age of 19-24 committed suicide in our state. The leading three counties with 20 or more deaths by suicide included, Bergen (26), Monmouth (20) and Morris (20). Mercer had 11 deaths.
Mercer County had the second highest rate of suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries in the state for youths between 10 and 24 in that same period, second only to Warren County.
The statistics take on particular meaning and urgency in the wake of the apparent suicide of Mercer student, Nick Pratico, whose body was recovered across the street from the college’s main campus last month.