It’s Okay to Ask for Help: Breaking the Mental Health Stigma and Utilizing the Most Underused Resource on Campus

Georgette Todd

Everyone has problems and ways to deal with them. Sometimes, though, how we deal with those challenges creates even more problems. Coping through excessive food, sex, drinking and drug use aren’t necessarily the only signs that something’s wrong, but they’re the most obvious benchmarks for professionals to cite as a cause for concern. But there’s a canopy of much smaller, lesser known indicators that something’s not right.

Seeking any form of therapy is still often considered taboo, or at least it’s not something people want to talk about openly. When various students were randomly asked if they knew anything about the City College’s Mental Health Counseling Center, the responses were generally the same — a militarily “ten-hut” body stance, a darting expression, and an accusatory question: “No. Why?”

The less dramatic reactions often reflected a distance about the health center altogether.

“I mean, I don’t really know anything about it, but it seems like a good resource for people. I personally have no real need for it (though),” said business student Thomas Phillips.

Matthew Ring, a leading counselor in the Mental Health Counseling Center who holds a master’s degree in social work and an associate’s degree in clinical social work, said he is not surprised that students are not being forthcoming about seeking their services, whether they do or not.

“While we’re committed to continuing our outreach to the student body about what we offer, I doubt that everyone who said they don’t know about us is telling the truth. It’s unfortunately still stigmatizing to seek assistance for any issue,” Ring said.

Getting someone to speak about the center’s services proved to be a challenge, partly because of confidentiality but also due to the perception of what it means for someone to seek out help and talk about personal problems.

“I would never seek out the mental health center’s services because I don’t have any mental health issues. But when I do need to speak to someone about my problems, I’ll talk to my family and friends. People I trust. But that’s just me. I don’t know about other people,” said Travis Metzger, a first-year student majoring in heating and air conditioning.

Ring realizes that people with strong support systems may not seek out the mental health center, but he and his colleagues are hoping to minimize any uncomfortable feelings that come with any student going to a counseling session for the first time.

Some of those efforts include informational announcements in classrooms, faculty outreach, community partnerships, involvement and hosting a series of events.

Every year, following Spring Break, the center holds a week-long annual health and wellness expo with community partners such as the University of California, San Diego and San Diego County of Human Health and Services about how to cope with anxiety, stress, depression, substance abuse and other debilitating challenges that often plague a number of college students, let alone the general population.

In addition to the annual expo, every Tuesday, starting between 1:45 p.m. to 2 p.m., someone from the center’s staff puts on an hour-long “Jeopardy” game in the cafeteria. Prizes for the winner include either a $100 certificate or a Kindle Fire.

To Ring, the real gift is raising awareness of what to do when students feel out-of-sorts, overwhelmed, stressed, or if they’re going through a dramatic personal situation.

“The games are just one creative way we try to reach out to students. If they can have fun while learning, and feel less stigmatized in the process, that’s really great. But, hopefully, the fun and games will lead to someone seeking help from us if that individual feels he or she needs it,” he said.

So how does a student know if he or she needs help? How does a student differentiate between a classified concern versus run-of-the-mill thoughts that come with the ups and downs of daily living?

David Sack, a board certified mental health expert, penned an article, “5 Signs It’s Time to Seek Therapy,” for Psychology Today. Sack states that while people shouldn’t be seeking help for every little problem that comes their way, most people can benefit from therapy at some point in their lives.

“Sometimes the signs are obvious, but at other times, something may feel slightly off and you can’t figure out what it is. So you trudge on, trying to sustain your busy life until it sets in (to a point) that life has become unmanageable,” said Sack.

Sack also lays out the five indicators someone could benefit from therapy, which are: consistently feeling sad, angry or “not yourself;” abusing drugs, alcohol or food to cope; losing someone or something important to you; experiencing something traumatic; not being able to do the things you like to do.

“You may have great insight into your own patterns and problems. You may even have many of the skills to manage them on your own. Still, there may be times when you need help — and the sooner you get it, the faster you can get back to enjoying life,” Sack said.

Ring, too, believes that students shouldn’t wait to seek out assistance, but rather tackle the issue at hand before it begins to negatively affect the student’s well-being.

“I’m concerned when someone waits until they are overwhelmed or too stressed out before coming in to learn tools on how to cope and deal with whatever situation they are in … we’ll of course see them, but we can help them in the early stages, too. They don’t have to wait until something traumatic happens to come see us,” Ring said.

The Mental Health Counseling Center is currently staffed with a team of clinically licensed professionals as well as a group of graduate-level interns from San Diego’s top university clinical programs. These interns have all had extensive training, are on the cusp of graduating to practice and are often the first point of contact with the center.

If a student is interested in counseling, he or she can either schedule online, on the phone or in person. If a student appears in person and there’s no staff available, then someone at the front desk will quickly accommodate the student based on scheduling, and that student will also get a follow-up within 24 hours.

“We don’t have a waiting list here, and a crisis trumps everything. We literally will stop what we are doing to help someone in a crisis. We deeply care about the students here,” Ring said.

The center is designed to make the average student comfortable, with an alert staff that actively connects with whomever walks through their door. They have massage chairs to relax students while they wait to be seen, candy to sweeten their palates and walls of resources that can help students on just about any issue they are facing.

According to the center’s website, students can meet with the counselors for any problem, no matter what it is. These issues range from stress, anxiety and depression to conflicts with others, suicidal thoughts, life transitions, difficulty coping with pressures and/or any other emotional regulatory challenges that can lead (or already has lead) to unhealthy life choices.

The center cannot treat students who need medication or a higher level of care, but they can assess in their counseling sessions, make determinations and direct referrals to their specialized medically credentialed partners.

While no problem is too small to handle for the staff, Ring assures that there’s a plan of action for more urgent situations as well as for students who need long-term care.

“We don’t prescribe anyone with medication here, and since we have a strong partnership with the community and with San Diego County (Health and Human Services), we can refer to the appropriate person to properly care for someone who needs more intensive help than what we can do here,” Ring said.

The center can predetermine if a student even needs counseling based on an interactive screening program that includes a confidential questionnaire. This assessment is available on the center’s secure website. After the questionnaire, the student will get a personal response with recommendations on what to do next.

Case depending, the center currently offers free once-a-week, 50-minute sessions. These sessions extend to non-students as well. If a student has conflicts with family members or has family members who need counseling for issues unrelated to the student, the center can also see them.

“We can, for example, counsel siblings or in-laws and such if the student wants his or her sessions to be used in helping them. Also, it should be noted that we at the center don’t define what ‘family’ is to the student. We can and have helped students with whomever they consider their family, including LGBTQ,” Ring said.

Other helpful services from the center can be found on its website or in person and include contact information for local and emergency community clinics, housing and year-round food resources, 24-hour hotlines, veteran information, domestic violence support and low-cost individual counseling in the community. The center also provides an online relaxation audio experience with visualization exercises to instantly lower stress and induce a calming effect.

For any student who wants to talk to a trained, caring professional with an objective point of view, he or she can call (619) 388-3539 or visit them in person in the A Building, Room 221. Depending on availability, the staff can accept walk-ins, and they have a plan of action in place for urgent situations.

Another way to schedule an appointment is to visit the center online at