In the last few years, the Amherst community has made incredible strides in the campus-wide conversation about mental health. The administration has renewed a full-time position for mental health awareness and education for Jessica Gifford, who endorses and finances a team of effective student initiatives. The wellness fair has become more prominent and has featured more groups every semester. There’s hardly a student who doesn’t try to sign up for the massages in Keefe during finals. But despite the increasing awareness of mental health, depression, anxiety and stress, this campus still needs to make an effort to direct students the tiny house at the bottom of the hill: the counseling center.
In the past, student reactions to the counseling center have been mixed. Though its mission and provided services are noble and helpful, a primary complaint among students has been the center’s relative inaccessibility to the people it aims to serve. Before the counseling center expanded, students encountered difficulties trying to make appointments because of the small size of the staff. And Scott’s House location, at the very far edge of campus, means that students have to be willing to undergo a bit of a trek to talk about their problems.
All the same, the counseling center is generally accommodating and has, along with the rest of this campus, made visible progress over the past three years in focusing on and accommodating student mental health. First, it has expanded both its physical space and its staff, meaning that students can access counselors or the school psychologist more quickly and easily, whether it’s their first time or their 15th time doing so. The “Let’s Talk” program on the second floor of Keefe has opened up new avenues for students to drop in and discuss what’s on their minds. In emergency situations, there is a 24-hour counselor on call with whom students can connect via the counseling center’s number. The counseling center is far from underused. In fact, about 50 percent of each class will have an appointment at some point before graduating, according to the counseling center, and most students have a positive experience.
But despite of all these improvements, the counseling center remains the benign little house at the bottom of the hill that most people don’t talk about. Ultimately, the center fades into obscurity when we talk about mental health because we speak of it as though it’s a place visited only by people with the most serious mental health issues. We forget that it’s a resource for all students to use where they can talk about anything, whether it’s a stressful midterm or a serious chronic issue. While this campus has become far more comfortable talking about wellness and mental health in the abstract, we’ve stopped short of truly destigmatizing the counseling center. Take a walk down the hill by the gym, cross the street and make an appointment at Scott House. You’ll never have someone who will listen to you so intently for free again.