Counseling centers first arrived in American colleges in 1910 at Princeton. Growing out of infirmaries and the medical model of psychiatrists, they came to help students with the ‘illness’ of severe psychological issues. Other counseling centers later developed out of a counseling psychology perspective whose aim was helping with vocational issues and catering to ‘the worried well.’ Taken together, both of these models form the college counseling center as we now know it today, one united by a developmental model, that views students as in process through a variety of normative crises and opportunities (Grayson, 2002).
Unfortunately, colleges today are struggling and counseling centers are inundated with students. These students are overwhelmed, and are coming with more severe, chronic, complex, and diverse issues, and they are putting a drain on the system. Why is this? Because we are still operating in a 20th century structure for what is a dynamic and evolving 21st century environment. We simply haven’t found good enough ways to evolve and reform this situation, and to implement holisitc and systemic changes that can lead to quantum leaps in our delivery of services.
So what can we do? First, we’d be well-advised to change our focus from psychological illness to wellness, but not just by changing the names of our centers, but instead by shifting our entire mindset in how we counsel and educate the public about psychology itself. Students, administrators, and even the culture, need a more three-dimensional perspective on how the human psyche works. In particular, we all need to get back to basics to rediscover that the psyche is made up of multiple selves, a variety of facets that are constantly moving in and out of the foreground. It is all too easy for us to think of our students and ourselves as unitary; this is a necessary fiction that helps all of us get by and stay in control, but it’s not how things actually operate.
We all know this from our cars—they may seem to be ‘automatic’, but they are built like standards, shifting from gear to gear sometimes effortlessly, and sometimes with great strain. The student psyche works like this too, and so we need to start helping students to learn how to metaphorically ‘drive stick.’ This takes practice and apprenticeship, but it does happen. Much of the time, the psychological issues that we deal with so much in college counseling—anxiety and depression—are the result of hidden conflicts and dualing loyalties, much of which are borne not only internally but also externally in one’s relationships to family, friends, significant others, and even the persona—our public self.
Multiplicity of self is essential. Self states are like film stills that when placed in rapid succession become the animating feature of our very personality. Bromberg (2011) puts it together neatly as follows:
“A flexible relationship among self-states through the ordinary use of dissociation is what allows a human being to engage the ever-shifting requirements of life’s complexities with creativity and spontaneity. It is what gives a person the remarkable capacity to negotiate character and change simultaneously–to stay the same while changing.”
If we took more time and care to zero in on these aspects, we could help students to see that their symptoms are merely messengers, signals that something is awry. We could help them see that the psyche is amazingly built, that it is a wise and creative and has the answers within in its own seeming problems. This focus could dramatically shift the way students, counselors, and administrators see college counseling. It is a place where creativity is reengaged and rediscovered, where the biggest of problems signal the greatest opportunity for creative transformation. Imagine how differently we would look at our mental health crisis if we saw in it the potential for such transformation?
On this same point, it would be healthier and more creative to provide students with an understanding of this in groups offered to them. Many students are not attracted to a group that highlights their pathology, i.e. an anxiety or depression group. Why? Because on some deeper level, they realize that this is not all that they are and that this fundamentally pathologizes a natural human process of conflict necessary for growth. What if instead we focused in on groups that highlight areas of common connection in further developing aspects of their greater humanity? I have run several groups geared towards introverts that helped them to embrace this aspect of themselves and in the process handily worked on negotiating the anxiety and depression that often results from not doing so (see my Ted-X talk for more). I’ve run men’s groups that focus on the various aspects of being a man, the challenges, privileges, complexities, and possibilities, and these too, have brought in all of the other conflicts in a new creative way.
In this process, it is essential to disabuse students, counselors, and administrators of the notions of perfection. College, like our culture, has often become a place were perfectionistic standards are expected and enforced, whether by well-meaning parents, teachers, administrators, or even students themselves. It is an understandable reality of being human that this enters into the picture as the story of Garden of Eden reminds us. Here’s the great psychological truth—it is only within limitation, that creative work and consciousness begins! Adam and Eve, in that foundational story, literally and figuratively are both cursed and blessed with imperfection—it is from that place which Eve will create the first human life and from which Adam will work by ‘the sweat of his brow’ to bring creative activity and new technology into the world.
Another important note on perfectionism—it is the great breeding ground for polarization and division, not only within the self, but also between groups, and it leads to an eclipsing empathy for those on the other side of the divide. As college counselors, we need to teach that this is crucial to the healthy functioning of the self as it is the for the culture; the main point of higher education is to enlarge, complicate, and creatively engage the various sides of the collective psyche too! It is essential to do this with human-scaled compassion, thoughtfulness, and heart.
The most three-dimensional clinical work occurs when we are oscillating between the particularities of an individual’s identities (racial, ethnic, religous, gender,sexual orientation) and connecting them to the universal, existential multiplicities. It is in this figure-ground, back and forth, that we work in the Venn-diagram overlap where cultural specificity and diversity meets universal commonality. We would do better to frame issues of multiculturalism in this broader context, recognizing everybody’s stories of suffering and adversity amidst their possibility for actualizing their hopes and dreams.
You may say I’m a dreamer, as well, in imagining a college landscapes that supports this kind of thinking. It turns out that many psychologists on the ground already support it and see its wonderful benefits. We would all do well as college cultures—whether we are administrators, faculty, psychologists, parents, or students—to recognize how the culture itself holds the problem, but also the potential for quantum growth. As Robert Kennedy once said, “Some men see things as they are and say why, I look at things that never were, and say why not?”
Michael Alcee, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who works at the Manhattan School of Music and in private practice in Tarrytown, NY. A Ted-X speaker, he delights in creatively revamping and reshaping the culture of American education and psychotherapy. For more information on his work, check out his LinkedIn page, his website at drmichaelalcee.com, or his recent Ted-X talk.
Bromberg, Phillip (2011). Awakening the Dreamer: Clinical Journeys. New York: Routledge.
Grayson, Paul A. (2002). Psychodynamic Psychotherapy with Undergraduate and Graudate Students. In Comprehensive Handbook of Psychotherapy: Volume 1, Psychodynamic/Object Relations (pp. 161-179). New York: John Wiley & Sons.