Joe McElveen

Healthy lifestyle necessitates mental wellness

The word "stress" is all too familiar to most college students. Even in the slow weeks, there are plenty of things to worry about, so stress and anxiety management should be a regular priority in students' routines.

A 2008 Associated Press study found that 80 percent of college students experience frequent daily stress, and 34 percent reported feeling depressed in recent months.

At the University of South Carolina, Student Health Services has several departments dedicated to students' mental well-being, such as Campus Wellness and the offices of counseling and psychiatry.

Counseling services, which relocated to the fifth floor of the Close-Hipp Building at the end of the fall semester, offers a variety of options for students, including individual and group therapy, stress management and mental health assessments. 

Tobin Lovell, assistant director of community-based services, has worked at USC for about 10 years. As well as working to make the counseling and psychiatric services more prevalent on campus, Lovell meets with clients regularly. At this time of year, Lovell said he meets with around seven clients per day.

"Our top presenting concerns (sic) is anxiety," he said in an email. "Anxiety symptoms can vary widely, and can take the form of social phobia, panic attacks [and] generalized anxiety, just to name a few."

An American Psychological Association study showed that about half of the students surveyed had felt overwhelmed by anxiety in the past year. About 13 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.

Psychiatric services differ from counseling in that psychiatrists are licensed doctors who provide psychiatric evaluations, diagnoses and treatment plans, including medicine prescriptions.

"Students need to continuously make wellness a priority in their lives," Lovell said, referring to basic elements such as sleep, exercise, nutrition and stress management. "Students should seek [counseling and psychiatric] services preventatively ... before mental health symptoms impair daily functioning."

USC professor and practicing psychologist Rhea Merck has over 30 years of experience, many of them spent in Columbia, in the mental health field. In an email, Merck confirmed Lovell's assessment that anxiety is the most prominent mental health issue on campus. She said depression, stress and eating disorders are typically next in line. A study done by National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders showed that around 25 percent of college-aged women dieted with such extreme measures as bingeing and purging.

Merck recommends that students seek help and treatment if they think they are battling a mental health problem. She said students often come to her with problems, and while she cannot counsel them personally, she connects them with the resources they need.

"You don't have to suffer. Treatment works," Merck said in an email. "Use the wellness center and the fitness classes. Take yoga. Go to the counseling center ... Go to class. Get to know your professors — you'd be surprised how people increase their stress levels by not going to class."

One of the more active health initiatives at USC is Campus Wellness, located on the bottom level of the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center. The department is dedicated to helping students establish lifestyles that are physically and mentally healthy.

Fourth-year public health student Hannah Doelling works with Campus Wellness as a Changing Carolina peer leader. She has worked with Student Health Services for two years and currently works with Jennifer Myers, assistant director of campus mental health initiatives, as well as with Campus Wellness.

Doelling recognizes that many students on campus don't use the resources available to them in dealing with stress and anxiety.

"If they're struggling, I think some students have no idea where to go," she said. "If it's something like anxiety, depression, anything like that, people just don't know where to take the first step."

One of the issues Doelling is passionate about and sees as a particular challenge on USC's campus is eating disorders. She said that treatment for eating disorders is lacking in South Carolina, with only one large treatment facility in Columbia, The Hearth, and the next closest center in Charleston.

"Not a lot of people know about it, but we do have an eating disorder program where people can get referred," she said. "They meet with a dietitian, and the dietitian kind of works with them alongside a counselor."

Doelling worries that students are hesitant to take advantage of the resources available because a stigma that alienates people who admit to needing counseling or treatment for mental health.

"People are so concerned with what people are thinking, and of course, if you say you're going to a counselor ... they just assume the worst," she said. "I wish going to a counselor was seen as going for your yearly physical ... because mental health is just as important as physical health, I think."

There has been some progress toward more open conversation about various mental health challenges, but any initiative implemented by the university would be spread out over several years, Doelling said. 

Students are often more willing to discuss their fears or concerns with their close friends. Doelling believes that this openness depends on trust. Sometimes people prefer to keep their problems private, but she hopes students will be willing to get professional help if the problem is potentially dangerous to a person's safety.

In cases of impending or immediate danger, there are hotlines available where students can get help. Students should resort first to calling 911 or the USC Police Department at 803-777-4215.


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