Let’s Talk About It
For her senior capstone project, psychology major Sabrina Carroll ’18 surveyed students’ attitudes and perceptions of behavioral health on campus and conducted eight in-depth interviews. Her findings may help the College alleviate the stigma associated with psychological disorders and get more students the help they need.
As a Resident Area Director, Sabrina Carroll ’18 recognizes the signs students exhibit when they are troubled, and she takes seriously her responsibility to ensure the physical and emotional health of her charges. As a psychology major with a clinical/counseling concentration, Carroll is using her senior capstone project to illuminate the mental health challenges across the entire student population and to help launch her own career in psychological counseling. She will enroll this fall in Lehigh University’s master’s program in Counseling and Human Services.
Her senior thesis, “Personalization Theory and Psychiatric Illness at Washington College,” looks at intergroup contact and explores how both positive and negative incidences of personalization—which entails everything from heart-to-heart conversations between best friends to random acts of kindness (or callousness) among strangers—feed into students’ overall sense of emotional security. While Washington College is known for its open, friendly vibe and strong sense of community, Carroll’s study of 225 participants identified a disturbing trend that can contribute to a troubled student’s sense of isolation.
“Students are spending time with one another, and there are ample opportunities to get involved, but we’re really not engaging at a deep level,” she notes. “It’s (oftentimes) surface level. Psychological health is not coming up in our conversations. I feel as though we’re programmed, when someone asks how we are, to respond, ‘Oh, I’m fine!’ We’re not comfortable saying we’re not fine. We’re not comfortable talking about things that are bothering us. Students are afraid of feeling awkward or being burdensome to others. That’s tough. If we felt comfortable engaging in a dialogue, we might realize just how many people are having similar experiences.”
Carroll also collected some critical data that identifies a chasm between students’ perceptions of behavioral health issues on campus and what’s actually happening among the student population.
“There’s a huge discrepancy between the number of students who have actually experienced some sort of psychological difficulty—ranging from a mild instance of anxiety to chronic and severe symptoms of depression—and our perception of those numbers,” Carroll says. “Nearly three-quarters of the 225 participants in my study had experienced an occasion when they realized that things were not ok. Of those three-quarters, more than half have been diagnosed with a psychological disorder. That’s a big number. And yet, when I asked about perceived prevalence—‘How many students do you think experience psychological difficulty?’—that average percentage came out to 41.6 percent. That’s a nearly 34 percent discrepancy. A lot more people experience psychological issues than we are aware of.”
In addition to sharing her findings during a departmental poster session, Carroll presented her work at an undergraduate research conference held at Georgetown University in mid-April. She also intends to share it with Washington College administrators.
“These are big numbers,” Carroll says, “and we need to have that conversation. Feeling like you’re the only one [struggling with behavioral health issues] is a huge contributor to stigma. With all of us doing our part in making this a comfortable environment in which to have that conversation, we can possibly save a life.”
Carroll would like to see more resources directed to behavioral health counseling and crisis specialists, particularly for those who use existing Counseling Services the most.
“For freshmen and seniors especially, it’s a transitional and confusing time. A lot of people are figuring out what’s next. If you’ve already struggled with behavioral health issues in the past, the pressures to have it all figured out can encourage anxiety. That’s why we have to look out for each other (after making sure we ourselves are okay, if we find we have the opportunity to). That’s our responsibility as humans. It’s a collective responsibility to break down some of those barriers and let people know that psychological and physical health are equally valid. When you break an arm, you seek help and have a treatment plan in place. When you feel so depressed you can’t get out of bed, that’s not so commonly accepted. Your brain is a body part. It can feel unwell too, just like your stomach or your sinuses. But we don’t treat it that way. That needs to change.”