Helping Hands and Open Ears
    Photo illustration by Alexis O'Connor, Michael Nowakowski and Alex Lordahl / North by Northwestern
    Photo illustration by Alexis O'Connor, Michael Nowakowski and Alex Lordahl / North by Northwestern

    Northwestern is stressful. We hear about it every day in the line to Norbucks, the library, on our way to class. It’s nothing we’ve never heard before, nothing we haven’t thought about. Cliché as it sounds, we need to start listening more carefully.

    In a 2012 survey by the American College Health Assessment, 50.6 percent of respondents reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, and 45.3 percent reported feeling “hopeless.” Amid the prevalence of mental health problems on college campuses, a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help, and 57 percent did not request accommodations from their school.

    The study cites stigma as the number one reason students are not seeking help. Here are four organizations trying to get at the root of the problem.

    NU Active Minds

    Started in 2011, the Northwestern chapter is one of more than 400 across the country trying to reduce stigma and increase dialogue around the issue of mental health on college campuses. The organization seeks to combat stigma by organizing events that create dialogue.

    “One of the biggest things is that we were one of the founding forces behind getting the mental health [Essential NU],” says Amanda Meyer, Weinberg senior and Active Minds co-president.

    Meyer says that in her personal experience at a school like Northwestern, people talk about stress as a “badge of honor” rather than sympathizing with each other when talking about what’s stressing them out.


    Part of the Dean of Students Office, AccessibleNU (formerly Services for Students with Disabilities) advocates for students navigating the stresses of Northwestern life with physical, learning or psychological differences. The office serves about 700 students, and Director and Assistant Dean of Students Alison May, who stresses she’s not a mental health expert, notes that about 25 percent of these students register for physical differences, 50 percent for learning and attention differences and 25 percent for psychological differences.

    May says that many students may not realize they are eligible for accommodations. She encourages anyone coming in with a diagnosed disability to register with the office, whether they want to seek accommodations or not. Reasonable accommodations for mental illness or learning disabilities include anything from extra time on tests to earlier registration times to reduce stress.

    May says that the high-achieving nature of Northwestern students makes it such that they are less likely to acknowledge or share when they feel they aren’t “cutting it,” which creates a vicious cycle of feelings of inadequacy.

    “I feel that that’s why we see students that seem like out of nowhere, all of a sudden they’re in such bad shape,” May says.

    NU Listens

    The student-run service was founded in 2011 and offers a technique called “active listening,” a counseling approach where an engaged listener does not offer feedback or advice, but merely verbalizes to indicate the speaker is understood. The service is anonymous and aims to be complementary to the campus counseling service.

    The group acknowledges that while their services cannot replace professional counseling, they exist because professional services can be expensive, intimidating or stigmatized.


    Northwestern Counseling and Psychological Services is the University’s office for clinical services from professional therapists. Students are allowed up to twelve sessions during their four years at Northwestern.

    Students have recently complained that the consultation process is too arduous and potentially triggering and that the twelve-session cap breeds inconsistency in students that need therapy.

    And students do need therapy. Last year 2,283 students used CAPS’ counseling services out of around 17,000 total undergraduate and graduate students. The office has 18 professional counselors working directly with students, a counselor to student ratio of 1:982.

    Given this ratio, therapists often find themselves referring students to local professionals to ensure consistent therapy.

    “If they need something specialized or something longer term, going off campus they can utilize insurance and be seen by someone for a longer period time and with specialized services,” says Dr. John Dunkle, executive director of CAPS.

    “I think that CAPS is only part of the puzzle,” Dunkle says. “Addressing mental health and suicide prevention is a community issue.”

    May and Dunkle work closely together in referring students to one another’s services, and both emphasize how important the creation of a holistic support network is to a mentally healthy atmosphere on campus.

    “We are in close collaboration with the Dean of Students’ office,” Dunkle says, “because again it’s part of a support network we’re trying to create here on campus.”

    May says the number of students who seek AccessibleNU’s services has tripled in the past 10 years, which reflects the significant demand for accommodations on campus. But she believes the increase reflects bigger systemic changes that need to be made.

    “At what point are there so many exceptions that you decide the rule isn’t working?” May asks. “It’s time to change the rule.”

    This story will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of North by Northwestern's print magazine.


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