Mental health support groups provide help for community

For Western Kentucky University and college campuses in general, Dr. Laves said, “About 20-25 percent of students will have a significant period of time where they are depressed or become depressed.” Photo illustration (Michael Noble Jr./HERALD)

Chris DiMeo

College can be a stressful time as the student lifestyle can be busy and demanding in many ways. The stress of the college environment can cause mental illnesses to become more prevalent.

Having support networks is critical for college students struggling with mental illness, said New Albany, Indiana, sophomore Olivia Eiler.

This is a lesson she learned the hard way.

Eiler, who is now the director of Bowling Green’s Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and a reporter for the Herald, had friends on campus who she said supported her, so she never felt compelled to attend any kind of mental health support group during her first semester of college in fall of 2016.

“I kind of hit a bottom during that winter term,” Eiler said.

By the end of the semester, she found herself in the hospital.

Jay Gabbard, a professor with the department of social work and facilitator of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Connections on-campus support group, said mental illness can cause a sense of isolation.

“A lot of students, when they’re struggling with depression and anxiety, they feel like they’re on an island,” Gabbard said. “But I think it becomes worse when you’re away from the people you traditionally leaned on for support.”

About 36.4 percent of college students experience depression on some level, Eiler said, citing the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. The American Psychological Association additionally names anxiety as “the top presenting concern among college students,” affecting about 41.6 percent of students worldwide.

Karl Laves, associate director of WKU’s Counseling & Testing Center, said in an email that “It is hard to be sure how accurate these numbers are when researching mental illness.”

“We know that people with mental illness often do not seek professional help,” he said.

Eiler said she thinks some people may avoid talking about mental illness.

“I think a lot of people just don’t talk about it,” Eiler said. “I think a lot of people are afraid to admit they need help for something people can’t physically see.”

Gabbard’s support group, NAMI Connections, gives students an opportunity to talk about their struggles with mental health for what may be the first time, he said.

The group meets every other Monday or every fourth Monday during the spring semester at 6 p.m. in the Academic Complex room 201. It is open to undergraduate, graduate and Gatton Academy students, regardless of whether the student has received an official diagnosis, he said.

Founded by and affiliated with the Bowling Green chapter of NAMI, the group is led by NAMI-trained and certified facilitators, including Gabbard himself.

The focus of the group’s meetings is allowing students to share their experiences, hear the experiences of others and exchange contact information with those going through similar experiences in order to build up support networks, he said.

“One important thing to note is that this is not a therapy group, but rather a support group,” he said.

He said the difference is support groups revolve around members providing “mutual support,” rather than being directed entirely by a therapist.

Eiler, who now regularly attends the NAMI Connections meetings, said that while she had a supportive community of friends, what she lacked in her first semester were people who could identify with her struggles.

“That’s where I think support groups for students can really come in,” she said, “is getting to that person that knows—not exactly what they’re going through, because everybody’s different—but at least has a similar experience.”

Eiler said attending the meetings has made a significant impact on her recovery from that difficult winter in 2016. During her time in the hospital, she said she attended support groups, and was encouraged to continue doing so upon returning to school so she wouldn’t “fall down again.”

She now leads her own support group as director of the entirely student-run DBSA Bowling Green chapter and gives talks on campus about key mental health issues.

The group meets every Wednesday at 4 p.m. in DSU 2058, and, despite its name, is open to all students, faculty, staff and members of the Bowling Green city community with any mental health struggle, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed.

NAMI and DBSA frequently encourage students to visit both groups, as well as the counseling center. The center, likewise, often refers students to the support groups in order to build on their progress in therapy, Laves said.

While the focus of these groups is on each individual’s well-being, Eiler said, there are also stakes for WKU as a whole.

“A lot of universities talk about retention of students,” Gabbard said. “Mental health issues are some of the most important issues in retaining students and students completing their degrees on time.”

Eiler cited a faculty member on the Tuition/Schedule Change Fee Appeal Committee, which approves or rejects tuition refunds for students who could not complete the semester due to extenuating circumstances, who told her that by far the most common reason students appeal to the committee is that depression prevents them from doing coursework or staying in school.

The presence of mental illness can also cause a decline in GPA, she said. She referenced research showing that students experiencing a combination of depression and anxiety can see a drop of 0.5 GPA points on average.

“[Mental illness] is really an important issue on college campuses,” Gabbard said. “And I think it needs to get more attention than it does.”

News reporter Chris DiMeo can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].