The Invisible Problem: Exploring Mental Health at Notre Dame

Author: David Korzeniowski, Alison O’Neil and Cristina Ribera

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“In October, I had a horrible panic attack, I called my mom and broke down on the phone ... and was legitimately crying in the middle of class.” 

“I didn’t know I had an issue with mental health until it got pretty bad.”

“After she passed away, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drive, I didn’t get off the couch, I was numb. I started seeing a therapist who recommended medication. I definitely resisted because I knew getting on medication meant I had a problem.”

“I struggled a lot with loneliness and anxiety and feeling like everyone hated me and those typical feelings that everyone gets when they’re overtired, except I wasn’t overtired.”

These Notre Dame students are not alone. Mental health is a complex and pervasive issue that affects many individuals.

“One in three college students [is] dealing with mental health difficulties,” Notre Dame psychology professor Dr. Brooke Ammerman said.

A 2017 study from the National College Health Association showed that over 30 percent of college students reported they had been diagnosed or treated by a professional within the past 12 months for a variety of mental health conditions.

There are many ways mental health conditions can be triggered, one of which is the transition to college.

“You are now placed in a situation that is novel with many strangers and no access to your primary caregivers,” Notre Dame psychology professor Dr. Daniel Lapsley said. “Maybe for the first time, college students are trying to fashion their own story and narrative.” Fourth-year architecture student Jack Adams built on this point, sharing that his struggles “boiled down to a sense of identity and not having [one].”

Adolescence and young adulthood are confusing, unpredictable, transformative periods; it is only human to face low points. However, especially in today’s social media — driven society, the perception of being the only one struggling persists. “It’s tough because you walk around campus and everyone is smiling and you have no idea what each person has going on in their life,” Adams said.

Much of this is due to the lack of open discussion on the topic of mental health. People are afraid to speak out about their issues because no one else is talking about it. As Jane Doe (an alias for a student who wished to remain anonymous) expressed, “I think a lot of people struggle, but I don’t think a lot of people talk about it because they think they’ll be judged.”

While a lack of open conversation is a universal issue, there seems to be a stronger stigma toward men speaking out about their mental health struggles. John Smith (an alias for a student who also wished to remain anonymous) explained, “I guess it’s kind of frowned upon for guys to talk about. It is an uncomfortable situation; everyone just prefers to not talk about it.”

Many negative consequences arise from the absence of open discussion. For one, if mental health is not a well-known and normalized human struggle, people may accept their mental state as “normal” and not realize they are dealing with a mental health condition. As Smith reflected, “It gradually got worse just because I didn’t know I had it.” Negative thoughts can be present, but if people are not informed that certain thoughts and behaviors need to be dealt with through appropriate assistance, such issues can become much worse.

Furthermore, the silence enhances a stigma that seeking help or opening up is a sign of weakness. This causes people to internalize their struggles, potentially to a point where they become unbearable. Such was the case for Smith, who shared, “I bottled it in until it got really bad.”

The shortage of conversations on mental health issues also creates the idea of “personal uniqueness,” as Professor Lapsley calls it. Without transparency of these real and prominent mental health struggles, it can be hard for people to hear: “You are not the only one going through this; it is not a reflection on you that you are going through this,” Professor Lapsley said.

Without such critical conversations, there is a lack of reassurance to those who are struggling. They might not realize that they are not alone and that there are resources and support out there to help them.


University Counseling Center (UCC):

Within the domain of the UCC, Notre Dame provides students with a host of therapy options aimed at all demographics. For example, the UCC offers group therapy for those who prefer conversing with multiple people to one-on-one counseling. Social Anxiety Group, Not the Perfect Family,

Graduate Therapy Group and Success Without Excess (a support group for those who struggle with substance abuse) are just a few of the group therapy options that the UCC lists on their website.

Fortunately for students, the university offers numerous resources, both preventative and treatment-oriented. The UCC is only one of many available choices for mental health care. Depending on their college, for example, students can see one of four Care and Wellness Consultants. Care Consultants are affiliated not with the UCC, but with the Division of Student Affairs. They also serve law and graduate students in addition to undergraduates.

“My group was called ‘Ride the Wave: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,’” junior Maddie Heyn told Scholastic. “It’s for people with anxiety and OCD. There was a wide diversity of backgrounds — male, female, age, culture.”

Heyn discussed her therapy group’s activities, praising its effectiveness. “It’s not about repressing anxiety, but living with anxiety. It’s kind of nice ... because if something happened you could talk about it but if nothing happened you could kind of sit back and listen. We had homework or activities to do.”

Scholastic spoke to Sharon McMullen, director of University Health Services, about other resources that the university offers. “I would encourage students who are struggling to reach out to UCC. In addition to individual counseling, they provide a variety of evidence- based services and programs to meet students’ needs. TAO [Therapy Assistance Online], for example, is an online tool that helps students manage their anxiety and depression.”

In addition to traditional forms of therapy, McMullen added, “UCC also provides alcohol and other drug assessment, crisis services and more. The key is that they work to understand each student’s individual need and then recommend services tailored to meet those needs.”

“I promote that everyone should go,” Heyn said. “It’s the only time in our lives that therapy will ever be free.”


Another resource that Notre Dame offers students is the Rev. James E. McDonald, C.S.C., Center for Student Well-Being, more commonly known as “McWell.” Located on the second floor of Saint Liam’s Hall, McWell seeks to reach all students in an effort to promote positive well-being, not just those struggling with mental health.

Prior to 2014, the university operated the Office of Alcohol and Drug Intervention, but it soon realized that students were using substances for reasons unrelated to addiction — to cope with life issues or to put themselves at ease in social environments, for example.

“We needed more comprehensive health services,” Mara Trionfero, an assistant director at McWell, said.

So, the office adjusted and became McWell, a resource focused not only on preventing physical and mental illness but also on promoting healthy habits and lifestyles for students.

“Health promotion is lifting up everyone to thrive and to flourish in the hopes that people who are on the cusp of not doing well will learn some skills ... A lot of our students could benefit from those skills,” Trionfero said.

Since McWell’s founding in 2014, the staff has expanded to include people with various backgrounds ranging from counseling to social work to public health to psychology. This diverse group allows McWell to promote student well-being from more than one angle.

For McWell, three is the magic number. The office’s staff is divided into three areas of focus: substance abuse, emotional well-being and general well-being (mainly focused on sleep). Additionally, they offer three kinds of resources to students: outreach, programs and services. Outreach consists of making students aware of McWell through tabling in LaFun or Welcome Weekend introductions. Programs involve more consistent outlets such as pop-up hammocks or glow yoga. Services, the most intentional of the three, are classes offered to students in subjects like mindfulness or sleep services.

Trionfero also pointed to a possible misconception among Notre Dame students regarding the office: “Sometimes there’s this perception that we’re just trying to be the fun people, but really there is a lot of research [behind it.]” For example, the pop-up hammocks are intended to promote rest and restoration; the rooms offered in McWell give students a private and restorative space, a manifestation of what research indicates can positively affect mental health.

McWell continues to try to improve its access to the entire Notre Dame student body, from first-years to graduate students. For example, starting two years ago, Moreau classes began coming to McWell as a part of their lesson on the importance of sleep.

“We, [McWell], don’t own well-being ... [we’re] trying to infuse well-being throughout all these departments on campus,” Trionfero said.

What McWell proves, among other things, is that emotional and physical well-being can promote positive mental health.


Although certain practices might be more or less helpful for different individuals, students expressed common methods for promoting positive mental health.

First, talking about the problem is perhaps the most important. Ammerman noted that the hardest thing to do is to talk to other people, but destigmatizing the problem is a huge step in the right direction.

“I think it is okay to share our struggles. We have all had our share of personal struggles,” Lapsley said.

In a similar vein, Lapsley pointed towards research that stated that even one good relationship — whether it be with a rector, resident assistant or personal friend — can be very healing for those struggling with mental health issues.

Additionally, both Adams and Heyn emphasized the importance of separating themselves from their current situations.

“I try to remove myself from my daily situations, especially ones where I feel stress and anxiety. Separating myself and objectively looking at my situations has been helpful,” Adams said.

“Last week something happened, and I stopped and thought ‘Okay, what do I actually feel about this?’ It helps you break it down,” Heyn said.

Practices like these can help keep problems from building upon one another and promote positive emotional well-being.

Time and space to one can also be helpful. Adams mentioned his habit of meditating either when he wakes up or before he goes to bed as a good way to start or end his day. Heyn said that, following her group sessions at the UCC, her group was assigned worksheets and was required to spend 90 minutes on themselves, a practice she found beneficial. Smith referenced the Grotto as “a nice place to reflect and decompress.”

These were examples of students’ approaches to self-care, a crucial to positive mental health and well-being.

“Self-care isn’t just about popping a bath bomb ... Value your mental space; value your physical space,” Trionfero said.

How to Help

The administration isn’t the only entity on campus offering resources to those who are struggling; some students have also decided to take action against mental illness. Active Minds ND, a self-described advocacy group, holds events and workshops and hosts guest speakers with the goal of ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. Students may be familiar with Active Minds’ work: during the fall semester, club members light up Touchdown Jesus green (a color often associated with mental health awareness) as part of their week of events known as Irish State of Mind.

Although not a medical or therapeutic organization, Active Minds offers students a platform and a group of like-minded individuals. One event held last year, “In Our Own Words,” gave students the opportunity to use skits and speeches to describe their experience with mental illness. “We want people to feel comfortable breaking that silence, in whatever way,” David May, vice president of Active Minds, told Scholastic.Students interested in joining Active Minds, May added, can join current members in the Gold Room of LaFortune Student Center, where the club meets every other Sunday between 12:30 and 1:45.

One way that students have broken the silence is through Notre Dame’s annual production of Show Some Skin. Students, professors and administrators can submit anonymous monologues about their experience on campus, and several of these highlight the difficulties that students struggling with mental health issues face. This year’s “Show Some Skin: Drop the Wall” included a monologue from a student suffering from anxiety and another from one who went to therapy following a traumatic experience. Venues like these allow students to share their stories and make others more aware of what their peers are going through.

May also stressed the importance of self-care, as well as helping friends in a nonjudgmental manner. “So in terms of how to help a friend ... I think a tendency we all have — and I can be guilty of this too at times — is to give them advice. And sometimes, people just want to know that they’re heard and know that they’re listened to. And they’re not necessarily looking for someone to fix a problem for them or tell them how they think they should go about handling it. So sometimes the best thing to do is just listen, understand, offer a shoulder to cry on.”

May emphasized that even when students wish to help their friends, those dealing with crisis situations should seek outside help from “someone who is more equipped to handle an acute crisis.” May listed resources for students in such crisis situations — the UCC’s 24/7 hotline, for example, as well as NDPD, 911 and resources within South Bend’s hospital system. He added that “something to also keep in mind is, if you are dealing with a friend in crisis, of course you want to do the best you can to help your friend. But, you should also be aware of your own mental health because it is certainly very taxing ... to help a friend that’s in crisis. So you want to be sure that you take care of yourself.”

Most Notre Dame students, if not affected by mental illness themselves, know at least one person who may be struggling. Fortunately, there are many resources and support systems for students on campus. Adams said, “It comes down to taking that first step, people in your life are there to help you, and people at the UCC and McWell are there to help as well ... no matter what your situation is, it’s about taking that first step.”