Gary Robinson has seen a lot of change in his 25 years at Hartwick.
The College’s director of counseling services has seen “a gradual transition” across generations, from Gen X, to Millennials, and now Gen Z. “Folks don’t have as much resilience as they used to,” he observes, “and it’s not their fault.”
The prevailing cause? Increased use of technology. “It’s all-encompassing,” he says. “Smart phones have replaced, to a degree, young people’s social life and the way they communicate. Technology is a blessing and a curse from a mental health point of view.”
For example, students often come to Counseling Services in Perrella Wellness Center having done an online search and certain they know what’s “wrong” with them. “They tend to see sadness as depression and stress as anxiety,” he says, noting that the former are fleeting emotions while the latter are the most common mental health disorders worldwide.
“People also get overstimulated with information,” Robinson explains. “When you have instant access on your phone to depressing messages, alarming messages, your brain is going to be affected. You may develop more anxiety as a result.”
Time has also brought a welcome “sea change” in the decrease in stigma related to mental health. Young people now “are very self-aware and ready to seek therapy,” he says, and that brings a new challenge: meeting the demand for services.
Hartwick is ready. “We’re ahead of the curve with a very good staff-to-student ratio and a well-developed peer counselor program,” Robinson explains. Hartwick’s 50-50 Peer Counselors are compassionate, mature students with diverse interests. They are fully vetted, intensely trained, and “ready to be role models and help tackle others’ issues.”
Peer Counselors adopted the name “50-50” years ago because, they say, “We’ll meet you halfway.” Today, the program averages 1,000 visits a year, most often addressing homesickness, adjustment issues, and roommate conflicts. “They help other students hold themselves accountable for self-care to lower their risk factors for mental health issues,” Robinson says. “Our 50-50s manage situations independently, help students solve their own problems, and make referrals to the professional counselors.”
One 50-50 Peer Counselor, Cilina Jagrup ’20, took the work further when she spent J Term presenting a series of mental health workshops for the College community. With the support of campus leaders, Jagrup recruited experts from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and on-campus professionals to raise awareness and “shine a spotlight on mental health,” she says.
The results exceeded the expectations of this three-year Peer Counselor who had used the College’s counseling services herself. “I was sheltered my first year,” she recalls. “I couldn’t understand my emotions and so I just stayed in my room. My RA helped, and referred me to 50-50.”
It’s a surprising revelation from this now vivacious young woman. “I can relate to my clients and help them,” Jagrup says. “Most of their issues are ones I actually dealt with, so I understand. An amazing amount of good can be done by talking.”