Elena Smith ’09 recently started a depression support group for students suffering from long-term depression. She facilitates the group along with Lauren Kuzel ’09 and a sophomore who wished to remain anonymous.
Smith explained that she got the idea because “in February I was going through a rough point here myself… I was taking advantage of treatment options, but I felt like I should try something else, and when I went online I saw that people were recommending support groups.”
Smith spoke with Danielle Toaltoan ’07, who served as a facilitator for Swat Survivors, a group for students who have been victims of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual assault. “Danielle was absolutely amazing,” said Smith. “She inspired me to go ahead with this idea and bring it to life.”
Smith sent out an e-mail looking for more facilitators and got “a larger response than I was expecting.” The sophomore facilitator, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that “I had the idea of a support group for depression last year when I was going through a period of depression, so I immediately jumped at the opportunity to help facilitate… I know this group is helpful for me, and I think that it can be of use to others as well, so any way that I can help provide this space for discussion seems worthwhile.”
David Ramirez, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, is not officially affiliated with the group, but is willing to consult with the facilitators when issues come up.
Ramirez said that he might recommend the support group to many of the students that he sees. “I think [a support group’s] potential utility is actually pretty significant… the reason for that is because of the shared experience. They will have very different personal stories and personal histories, but there is some comfort in communicating with people who’ve been through something that you’ve been through.”
As a result of the shared experience, Smith said, “we can give each other advice… on different methods of treatment, medications, and the experience at Worth.” The sophomore facilitator explained that “depression is far more common at Swarthmore than many people realize, but because it’s not talked about much, it can be easy to feel alone… [the group] provides a forum for people dealing with these issues to get together and discuss ways of coping at Swat, as well as just to provide a sense of camaraderie among us.”
Does Swarthmore pose particular problems for depressed students? Smith pointed out that “there’s an incredible amount of schoolwork… when you don’t have energy you can’t do your work and it gets to be a self-perpetuating cycle that is hard to break.” She also cited the small community as a pro and a con.
The sophomore facilitator said that “I will say that I think depression is more prevalent at Swarthmore than many people realize.” Because of the stigma often associated with mental illness, “I think American culture encourages us to hold those feelings inside and ‘suffer in silence,’ and that’s very damaging.”
Although Ramirez hasn’t done a study, he says, “it’s not my impression that more people are depressed at Swarthmore than in the general population… but I think on a practical level being depressed at Swat is very, very challenging, and so people do feel it quite keenly… it effects so strongly their ability to do the thing they’re here to do…depression has a pretty powerful effect on cognitive function, and so it’s hard to be a critical thinker and be depressed.”
He continued, “the expectation is that people are going to function at a pretty high level of intellectual enterprise 24/7, and depression isn’t something you can just postpone until winter break like surgery on your wisdom teeth.”
Everyone the Gazette spoke to agreed that the group could serve a large population. The sophomore facilitator cited the statistic that one out of ten people will experience depression at some point, and that by some estimates depression affects one out of seven college students. Although it’s impossible to know how many Swarthmore students are depressed, the Gazette spoke to Ramirez about how many students are using CAPS services.
According to exit surveys, 36% of students will visit CAPS during their time at Swarthmore. When asked about how many students will use CAPS for a long period of time, Ramirez looked at the annual report from 2006-2007, when 256 students used CAPS in all. It’s important to note that many students also see outside psychological services, but Swarthmore has no way of gathering that information.
The median number of sessions used is five, said Ramirez, meaning that half of students used five or fewer sessions and half of them used five or more. “We saw 22% of those students–57 students out of 256–for thirteen or more sessions… what’s good about Swarthmore College is that we have the capacity to accommodate students who need more treatment in order to be well served.” Other colleges often cap the number of sessions available at 6 or 8.
This can be a problem because “depression is very treatable, but it’s a treatment that usually requires some amount of time.” Many students come to Swarthmore already with experience of depression. Of the 256 students seen by CAPS last year, 92 had been in therapy before college.
CAPS can also provide prescriptions. Sixty-three students went to psychiatrist Joe Hewitt for a consultation last year, says Ramirez, and of those, “Fifty-five were treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.” Of those 55, “Thirty-seven came already on medication… so only 18 students came to our service and began medication.”
Ramirez concluded, “I really like the fact that students are willing to be open about mental health concerns… I think that reflects a general sense of good campus health, that people are willing to be open and trying to figure out what they can do on their own… it’s a pretty cool thing that students care enough about one another to start this group.”
For people thinking of attending, Smith wanted them to know that “we’re not going to be perfect right now… the group is growing and we’re learning from our experiences.” That said, “it’s about a community, not one person running the show,” and every person who comes will help the group improve.
The Swarthmore Depression Support Group meets on Tuesdays in the Women’s Resource Center at 9 PM. Contact Elena Smith [esmith3] or Lauren Kuzel [lkuzel1] for information.