Survey shows Emerson has poorer mental health than national average

by Katherine Burns / Beacon Staff • February 18, 2016

A survey conducted last April through the American College Health Association revealed that students at Emerson reported higher levels of loneliness, anxiety, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts than students across the country. Almost twice as many students at Emerson reported a psychiatric condition than the national average.

Laura Owen, associate director of wellness education, conducted the survey with Jane Powers, director of the Center for Health and Wellness, and Owen said she compared Emerson’s results with data from other colleges.  

Emerson’s Care, Assessment, Response, and Engagement Team has been using this data to direct their program and help students in need. The organization, formerly known as the Assessment and Care Team, has existed for several years to identify and aid students who pose a threat to themselves and others.

“It’s really tough to think three quarters of people feel very lonely; and half feel so depressed that it’s difficult to function,” Owen said. “It’s scary to me. It makes me really worried.”

The survey was sent to all full-time undergraduate and graduate students and 750 students, or 18 percent of the student body, participated. The majority of those surveyed were white, female undergraduates who live on campus.

Almost 75 percent of students reported feeling very lonely in the last 12 months, and 75.6 percent reported feeling very sad, as compared to the national average of 59 and 69.3 percent, respectively. Also, 11 percent of Emerson students reported incidents of self harm, and 13 percent reported seriously considering suicide. Owen said these collegiate mental health statistics have increased not just at Emerson, but nationally, too.

The assessment is generally conducted every two years, but Emerson hasn’t surveyed its students since 2010. Owen said she plans to release the survey again in 2017.

Owen said she sent the notable statistics to Director of Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services Elise Harrison, Interim Dean of Students Sharon Duffy, and members of eCARE. According to Owen, this group helps assess students who pose a threat to themselves or others and guide them toward the appropriate resources. Owen said the data helped mobilize and motivate members of the group.

“All of us made time for [mental health issues] because of that data,” Owen said. “Knowing that we have a community that needs more support, that’s where it fits in with the eCARE team.”

eCARE has since been expanding, as Amanda Turnley recently became director of assessment, care, and case management. She said she hopes to increase awareness of the program’s purpose and resources.  

“I hope that we can create a real culture of care at Emerson where people look out for each other,” Turnley said.

eCARE is chaired by Duffy, and includes members from the following offices on campus: Emerson College Police Department, Center for Health and Wellness, ECAPS, Violence Prevention and Response, and Disabilities Services. Each department sends a representative to the weekly meetings, where the group decides on a case-by-case basis which resources to match to students needs.

ECAPS has seen a 31.1 percent increase in use of their services from the 2011-2012 academic year to the 2014-2015 academic year.

Elise Harrison, director of counseling and psychological services, said she recently requested more counselors to meet the increased demand from the Board of Trustees.

“There are only so many hours in a day, so without more staff we can only accommodate so many students,” Harrison said.

Students also cited depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties as the greatest factors affecting their academic performance according to the survey data. More than 21 percent said anxiety affected their academic performance, 17.2 percent reported sleep difficulties, and 15.3 percent reported depression.

Harrison said this is because those involved in creative pursuits generally have higher levels of depression and anxiety.

“The fact that Emerson is so creative—so many students here are artists and actors and visual artists and musicians—I think that may account for some of it,” Harrison said. “My theory is that when people are more creative, they have much more access to their emotional life and feel things very deeply.”

Diane Paxton, director of the Disability Services Office, said the combination of Emerson’s focus on career preparation and students’ creative goals could contribute to these results.

“There are a lot of students pushing themselves to get involved, take advantage of things, and produce things that can go into their portfolio,” Paxton said. “Even some extracurriculars here seem more like jobs.”

Paxton said anxiety, depression, and other conditions need to be destigmatized and students should know to seek help. The DSO hosts events like Fresh Check Day and the Cirque de De-Stress to do exactly this, Paxton said.

Erik Ly, a sophomore marketing communication student, said he feels the competitive environment at Emerson contributes to these statistics.

“As much as we have this supportive, collaborative environment, at the end of the day it’s really about succeeding,” Ly said.

Julia Roberto, the treasurer of Emerson’s chapter of Active Minds, a national mental health advocacy organization, said that she has many friends who aren’t aware of ECAPS’ services.

“The never-ending goal is letting students know about these resources,”  Roberto said. “I think spreading that and making it common knowledge is always our goal.”

Roberto, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major, said Active Minds is also advocating for more diversity among counselors.

“Different issues arise in different communities, so we think it’s important to look into that,” Roberto said.

Turnley also said she wants eCARE to contribute to addressing mental health issues related to the high stress culture at Emerson. Turnley said she does not believe this is an issue the group can tackle on its own. Currently, it’s primarily concerned with identifying students who may cause harm to themselves or others.

“We want students to succeed,” Turnley said. “We want students to be at the best of their abilities at Emerson. But at the core we want to make sure people are safe. Safety of the community at large is the number one priority.”