GRCC counselors reach out to help students with mental health needs

GRCC student Chad Hamilton attends a workshop on depression with his son, Caelan, 2, for a class he is taking

College students can face unfamiliar uncertainty: What career path fits? What degree will land a good job? Is there enough money for tuition and rent? What are the ramifications of an E on a test?

Professor and counselor Andre Fields said students often fall into a pattern of self-abuse when things get stressful. He explained the line of thinking: “I got an E on my exam; I’m going to fail class. I’m going to flunk out of school. I won’t get a good job, and I will always be poor.”

Hidden Pain: Bringing Youth Mental Health out of the Shadows is a continuing series of School News Network

Fields, who leads sessions for students on managing anxiety, overcoming depression, drugs and alcohol, and healthy relationships, said about 90 percent of students he sees are struggling with anxiety and depression. He works to equip them with tools to change their mindset and be more successful in school.

“At the end of the day, for most people who deal with depression, it’s because of how you think,” he told a several students during a recent hour-long session in the Student Center. When “you are what you think,’” how you react to things matters, he said.

GRCC student Stanesha Lee, who attended the session for a course she’s taking, said the workshop resonated. “Everybody goes through something and we all need coping skills,” she said. “It’s good GRCC offers these for students.”

Professor and counselor Andre Fields presents a workshop on depression at GRCC

Counselors Broaden Their Reach

Fields and GRCC professors and counselors Stacey Heisler and Emily Nisley have increased their approach to meet mental health needs of students. Along with free, confidential one-on-one counseling, they offer a slate of general workshops and mind-body wellness events based on mindfulness, managing emotions, sleep and other topics. They offer the services as “in-kind donations,” above and beyond their job duties.

“It is the right thing to do,” said Heisler, interim Counseling and Career Development program director, “(Workshops and events) are another great way to get information out and help students who may not be needing one-on-one therapy, but can benefit from those skills.”

Because of the growing need for services, GRCC restructured its Career Development Department into Counseling and Career Development in 2016.

“We launched an initiative to focus more on the mental health needs of our students as well as the career needs,” Heisler said.  A sobering reason is the spike in anxiety, depression and suicide nationwide. In 2016, suicide became the second leading cause of death among those age 10-34, according to information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

GRCC student Stanesha Lee attends a workshop on depression

Also, GRCC is in the final eight months of a three-year federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to focus on suicide prevention and awareness. The college has funded programming, events and training for students faculty and staff. A Behavior Intervention Team including a student life coordinator, campus safety, counseling and disability support service, also works with students experiencing crises.

“We know mental health issues are on the rise on college campuses. Counseling centers are seeing this across the country. It’s a very strong trend,” Heisler said.

In confidential counseling, students are assessed on whether they are at a risk of suicide. They also can be screened for depression, anxiety and social anxiety and referred to outside organizations if needed.

Professor and counselor Stacey Heisler

Providing Toolkits for Life’s Stressors

While depression and anxiety have biological causes, Fields said students can face obstacles that often get in the way of school, like relationship stress and financial issues.

“For most people who don’t succeed in college, it’s not because they’re not smart enough,” he said. “It’s because life and the emotions of life can cause a person to kind of malfunction.”

Added Heisler, “The research shows a lot of different possibilities for what’s been going on. The recession probably didn’t help matters. There’s a lot of pressure for students to enter college and succeed. It’s become such a financial barrier and burden on families.”

Counseling helps, she said, and many students feel much better after just a few sessions. “We are working with students to help reduce symptoms they may be experiencing that are impacting their success in college.”

Heisler also sees social media and technology playing a role in students’ mental health, and strongly encourages them to get involved in volunteering, clubs and programs.

“We know mental health issues are on the rise on college campuses. Counseling centers are seeing this across the country. It’s a very strong trend,” Stacey Heisler, GRCC professor and counselor

“It comes down to social isolation. I see a terrific amount of loneliness and social isolation,” she said. “(Students) may have virtual connections by playing games and social media but (few) face-to-face interactions and opportunities. It’s really hard to know yourself well if you don’t have experiences.”

Heisler said she wants students to know how accessible GRCC counselors are, and that counseling and career development really do go hand-in-hand.

“If you don’t have a sense of where you are going, it can be very anxiety-provoking. We need a sense of purpose and we all have that within us, but we don’t have access to it, necessarily. We need the tools and the help to get there.”

Heisler said she understands stressors of everything from the weight on the shoulders of a first-generation student carrying the hopes and dreams of his or her family, to a student who wasn’t successful at a four-year college or university right out of high school who is now taking a different path.

She said sees many students overcome their challenges.

“There’s a lot of pressure, but a lot of resilience as well.”

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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