Holtzman: Long-term self care requires more than a drop-in session

Rachel Holtzman, Columnist

Discussions surrounding mental health during winter quarter often boil down to handing out the Counseling and Psychological Services phone number and reminding people to take a healthy dose of Vitamin D — or, in worst-case scenarios, proposing the option of medical leave. Those discussions focus on helping those with the most severe symptoms. That’s important, but on a campus where it feels like almost every student has overpacked their schedule, it can be easy to convince yourself that if a problem isn’t urgent, it’s not worth mentioning.

That’s how I ended up creating a lot of stress for myself during Winter Quarter of my junior year. I’d spent the fall studying abroad in Seville, Spain, and I fell in love with the city and my life there. When I flew back to New Jersey, I only had two weeks to adjust to American life again before returning to school. I was constantly tired, still eating on Spanish time and nursing a sinus infection; the stress only got worse during sorority recruitment and after starting back-to-back theatre productions.

I knew something was a little off, but told myself my feelings were typical. Eventually, though, I had to acknowledge I was experiencing some reverse culture shock and give that temporary problem some attention. Self care isn’t just a buzzword for midterm season, but a teachable skill which students need to learn in order to handle transitions and unexpected change. However, Northwestern programs currently lack the resources to teach students to cope with minor setbacks; without them, it’s difficult for the majority of students to understand the need to seek help early on.

The program staff in Seville worked for Sweet Briar College, not NU, and they were the ones who warned us to take care of ourselves. They asked us to watch each other for feelings of boredom, frustration, recklessness and isolation; changes in concentration; missing our homes in Spain for an extended period of time; and negative feelings about American culture. As we got on the plane to come home, already emotional after saying goodbye to our host families, I joked to a friend that we had a quarter of reverse culture shock ahead of us.

It took me two months to realize I wasn’t joking. When I came back, NU’s study abroad office just sent me a program evaluation survey and didn’t actively follow up. But that didn’t bother me. I had student groups and classes to worry about and believed that my time in Spain had taught me to slow down, manage stress and enjoy the little things. Without any advice or in-person resources to help me make those habits permanent, however, it was hard to find time for myself. Slowing down and reorganizing was a great idea in theory, but because readjusting to life in the U.S. isn’t the same as a clinical diagnosis, I ignored my gut feeling and lived deadline to deadline.

It already takes plenty of effort to reach out for help on campus, and to many students’ dismay, on-campus resources aren’t equipped with the programs or budget for teaching long-term stress management. To help people immediately, CAPS provides free therapy and has removed its 12-session limit, but people often end up using its referral services or avoiding CAPS altogether if the problem feels milder. The CAPS website offers meditation resources and a few videos on self care, but proactive programs on success strategies and meditation are rarely offered more than once a week. While CAPS lists drop-in hours for students seeking help for short-term stress, self care requires more than a drop-in. Sometimes, for simple lifestyle adjustments, a few sessions and a listening ear may help, but CAPS’ wait lists and screen times can present challenges for people to get help outside of emergency situations.

Following a few weeks of annoyance with American culture, exhaustion, sadness and a short attention span, I finally told my parents and close friends how I was feeling. I couldn’t slow down right away, but I was able to reframe my priorities for Spring Quarter. Luckily for me, this was just a bump in the road, a change in my life that required a little adjusting.

But I realized that for students coming back from programs abroad, and for anyone else experiencing change, on-campus resources might look like Band-Aid solutions. It’s up to the Northwestern community to create an environment where good mental health is a practice that doesn’t require a crisis to be acknowledged.

Rachel Holtzman is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.