October 26, 2015

Take Care of Yourself: A Message from Counseling Services

SAIC graduate students work hard. In addition to a heavy course load, the average grad student has at least one part-time job, freelances in some capacity, and participates in organizing and showing at exhibitions. While these activities are necessary preparations for a career in the art world, the pace of it all can be exhausting. Grad journal editor Amie Soudien spoke with Nancy Easton, training director and clinical psychologist at SAIC’s Counseling Services, to better understand what the service offers, and how grads can alleviate stress in their lives. Self-care, Easton says, is integral to positive mental health.

Amie Soudien: What are some of the most common mental health problems that affect graduate students?

Nancy Easton: A whole range of mental health problems affect graduate students. Some of them concern the issues of moving here for grad school and leaving your whole support network behind. Then there are problems like anxiety and depression. These issues relate to being in grad school, and the importance people place on their graduate education. On the one hand, grad school is a confirmation that you do have talent in a particular area. Almost immediately however, some students feel like they’re being challenged in a way that expands how they work. That can feel really unsettling.


Stress from anything can bring out depression or anxiety in people, and grad school comes with so many different kinds of stress. How am I going to afford to do this? How do I live? How do I manage my life and how do I pay for it? What am I going to get out of this? This isn’t completely known at all times. People can come out of grad school feeling self-assured, but there is a lot of uncertainty in the process.


AS: If students are experiencing anxiety, what are the first steps they should take?

NE: It depends on the person. Some students will feel comfortable coming into the counseling center and sorting out those issues with a psychologist. It doesn’t have to be a crisis or a definable mental health condition. We meet with students who want therapy for all kinds of reasons. Therapy is not the only way. Students might benefit from making friends with people who they feel will become close and confide in. Continuing to reach out to friends and family members from wherever they come from is also a source of support.


Even things that don’t seem at all mental health related, like broadening their connection with faculty or people who have taken an interest in their work, can be help students to reduce their anxiety. Use advisors as mentors—how did you approach this and what helped you? Self-help activities like meditation, yoga or exercise help people to feel a little more grounded, or help to maintain a feeling of relaxation. A given person might want to start with any one of those things. If they need another strategy, try a different one.


AS: In what ways can the counseling service help students who struggle with anxiety or mental illness?

NE: We offer brief psychotherapy. That means students can come in for typically up to 16 free sessions, about a semester’s worth. We’re very much—all of us, I think—generalists. We have some familiarity with a wide range of mental health problems and stressors, and work through those things in talk therapy and sometimes through mindfulness or relaxation exercises. For students who need something more specialized or intensive than what we offer, we then help students connect with therapists and psychiatrists off campus who can prescribe medication or other resources. We try to work with students’ health insurance to help them find something that’s cost-effective.


AS: Speaking to cost-effectiveness and the expense of health insurance, in everyday situations what can help grads cope with stress?

NE: Grads should try to make some time to take care of themselves. I know that’s hard to do in grad school. You feel like you should be working all the time. There are times when you feel kind of blocked in your work or just can’t finish all the reading. For those times it’s important to do things that feel soothing. It might not feel like a mental health intervention, but it really helps. Anything that that promotes health and relaxation will help to lower your anxiety level.


I have to suggest that those strategies probably work better when they don’t include alcohol or substances. Initially people use them because it helps them relax, but if you are reliant on substances or alcohol as a coping strategy for stress, you wind up in a vicious cycle that has potentially negative effects on your performance, health, and mental health. It helps to have a wide variety of different ways of coping.


AS: You briefly mentioned self-care. Could you explain a little about what self-care is and why it’s important?

NE: I don’t know if I can comprehensively address all of it, but self-care encompasses all those things that we do, or should do, in our daily lives that help us take care of ourselves physically and mentally. We do this so we are able to address the tasks at hand. Self care includes activities that give us some downtime. It turns off the work-oriented way of being in the world.  That could be anything that’s fun, that doesn’t stimulate your own personal anxiety. Self-care is different for every person: take the night off and listen to music, watch a movie, or go for a walk. Self-care is anything that lets you unplug for a little while that also isn’t destructive to you.


AS: What can we as students do to help alleviate stigma around mental health and seeking help?

NE: At the counseling center and in student affairs we focus a lot on the concept of flourishing. Flourishing is defined as people’s ability to be happy, feel productive, feel like they have a purpose in life and also feel like they can manage their responsibilities. It comes from a field of study called positive psychology and I think it’s a nice antidote for stigma. In the counseling center we’re aware of the two continuum model: there’s a continuum of mental illness and there’s a continuum of mental health. You can have some mental health problems and still be very high on the continuum of mental health. Over the past few years we have paid a lot of attention to the understanding that the absence of mental health problems does not mean necessarily mean that someone is flourishing and has positive mental health. Some of what we try to do is help increase that adaptive flourishing aspect of your life. As artists, what students and faculty will tell me, is that it’s really important to know yourself. Therapy can be a great way towards getting to know who you are, what works for you, what doesn’t, and how to communicate with people.



Counseling Services is located at the Wellness Center: 116 S. Michigan Ave., 13th floor

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