Depression confessions spur concern: Disturbing Facebook trend raises red flags

St. Olaf Confessions has struck again. And with Suicide Prevention Week coming up – Oct. 25 through 31 – campus groups are working to raise awareness about depression and mental health, as well as resources for those who may benefit from them.

For those unfamiliar with Confessions, here is a brief history: in December of 2012, a lone student created Ole Compliments, the first of several St. Olaf Facebook pages allowing students to anonymously publicize their intimate thoughts and feelings. St. Olaf Confessions, an edgier anonymous outlet, emerged the following February. These were soon followed by St. Olaf Flirts, St. Olaf Snores to which students can submit photos of unsuspecting sleeping Oles and, most recently, StoRants.

Some of the anonymous posts, specifically those appearing on the St. Olaf Confessions page, began to elicit concerns on the part of both students and administrators. The Student Government Association SGA Senate discussed the page and its implications at a weekly meeting in February of 2013.

Concern over the page waned during the spring semester, but a new development this fall has prompted further discussion. During the past several weeks, there have been a number of troubling posts regarding struggles with depression and even suicide.

“Lately, I’ve been dealing with a lot of suicidal thoughts,” began one confession. Another anonymous poster admitted, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about killing myself.” These and other such posts have prompted serious concern about mental health on campus. Sierra Napoli ’15, a Wellness Center Peer Educator, said many students at St. Olaf face mental health challenges.

“The Spring 2014 American College Health Association ­- National College Health Assessment Institutional Data Report contains information about many facets of the lives of St. Olaf students,” she said. “For example, 68.4 percent of students report feeling hopeless in the last 12 months, 59.8 percent of students report feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do in the last two weeks and 93.5 percent in the last 12 months and 29.9 percent of students have felt very lonely in the last two weeks and 70.1 percent in the last 12 months. 20.5 percent of students have been diagnosed with depression and for 48.6 percent of students, dealing with academics has been traumatic or very difficult to handle in the last twelve months.”

These disturbing trends did not go unnoticed. A group of students proposed an honor house project that would combat anxiety, depression and stigmas surrounding mental illness. The Mental and Spiritual Health Awareness House MASHAH emerged at the beginning of this academic year. Laurelle Foster ’17, the house’s president, said that the project aims “to attend to the high amounts of anxiety, academic pressure and the side effects thereof of the St. Olaf student body.”

“If we remove the stigma around mental health, more people will feel comfortable asking for help and fewer will become suicidal,” Foster said. “In my opinion, therapy is the most beneficial thing someone can do to work through anxiety and depression. I have seen people’s health drastically improve after they commit to going to therapy. It has always helped me.”

Foster and Napoli both urge students facing mental health challenges to seek professional help.

“People struggling with depression should talk to mental health professionals,” Napoli said. “While the Wellness Center can help with peer support, we are not mental health professionals and would refer students to speak with a psychologist or the psychiatrist at Boe House.”

Boe House is located on St. Olaf Avenue, home to the Counseling Center, an on-campus resource for students experiencing any mental health challenges.

The Counseling Center Web site says that “any personal concern is appropriate to bring to the Counseling Center. Student concerns typically involve issues related to relationships, identity, family, depression, victimization, anxiety/panic attacks, academics, grief and loss, socialization/isolation, food/body image or chemical use/abuse.”

The Counseling Center offers individual counseling, group counseling, nutrition counseling, medication consultations, workshops and seminars, psychological testing and referrals to off-campus mental health professionals. According to the Web site, the typical wait time for an appointment at Boe House is two weeks; during high-stress times like finals week, the wait can sometimes be twice as long.

The wait for appointments at the Counseling Center is certainly not due to a lack of resources. In fact, the center employs one full-time and four part-time therapists. In addition, the center employs four graduate students completing their clinical therapy practicum experiences and two consultants – a psychiatrist and a registered dietitian – who provide limited hours throughout the academic year.

Steve O’Neill, director of the Counseling Center and the aforementioned full-time therapist, discussed the involvement of the center in providing students with mental health care.

“It’s difficult to give an accurate count of how many students are seen each week, since the weeks can vary quite a bit,” said O’Neill, “On average, we were seeing about 120 students a week. I can tell you that we saw 550 students in individual counseling last year, which represents about 18 percent of the total student population. We provided 3,111 individual counseling appointments.”

O’Neill said that over 40 percent of the current senior class has visited the Counseling Center over the past four years.

An additional resource for students is the Pastor’s office, which offers confidential pastoral care.

“The resources available through the College Ministry Office are different from those offered through the Counseling Center,” said Pastor Matt Marohl. “The Boe House offers counseling services, while Pastor Fick and I offer confidential pastoral care. What is the difference? Neither [Associate Pastor Katie Fick] nor I are trained counselors. We are experienced and trained listeners who engage in conversations about the joys and complexities of life.” Marohl said that pastors and students engage in wide-ranging conversations about any number of topics.

“Sometimes students find that their needs are met through talking with us. Sometimes together, pastor and student, we decide that it would be helpful or necessary to include professional counseling,” Marohl said. “It is normal to experience stress and anxiety and the wide range of human emotions. More than that, it is normal and necessary to talk about these things. Talking about our difficult and painful experiences can be a necessary part of the healing process. Pastor Fick and I are good listeners and conversation partners. We are here to provide support and care through the entirety of your college experience – good times and bad.”

MASHAH hosts yoga in the Art Barn every Monday from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Suicide Prevention Week is Oct. 25 through 31; on Wednesday, Oct. 29, Boe House will host depression screening. Students should keep their eyes open for more events throughout the year.

Any student in an emergency or crisis situation should call 911, St. Olaf Public Safety at 507 786-3666, Rice County Social Services 24 Hour Crisis Line at 1-800-422-1286 or the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK 8255.

Depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges are serious problems that St. Olaf students – and college students everywhere – face. Recent activity on the St. Olaf Confessions page has made that abundantly clear. Peers and professionals are ready and equipped to help.