While students at UM are suffering many of the same mental health problems as those in colleges around the nation, experts say UM is host to some unique problems.
With South Beach right around the corner, filled with “gorgeous” people and a club scene unlike anywhere else, students find themselves inundated with an image of what they think should look like – leading to a wide array of eating disorders, University mental health officials said.
And, they note, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.
“We’ve always felt that our cosmopolitan nature is a tremendous asset, but also brings many students away from home,” Dr. Malcolm Kahn, director of UM’s Counseling Center, said. “Many students struggle with their new independence and [this] can lead them down the wrong paths.
“Our very warm climate and our South Beach locale enable for eating disorders being fostered. Students have come here and told me, ‘Up north most of the year I can wear a baggy sweatshirt or shirt and cover up and nobody knew what my figure was,’ but down here that doesn’t happen.
“There is a lot of pressure, I think especially for females who feel the need to display their figure, and there is a lot of sensitivity about it and it translates into a bigger problem with eating disorders here than at a lot of other schools around the country.”
Freshman Angie Font, a native of Miami, has had to endure those pressures all her life.
“I do feel that pressure to a certain extent,” Font said. “If I could look like that, I probably would prefer to because society has associated that kind of beauty with happiness, and it’s hard not to buy into the propaganda.
“But no, I never had the willpower to mess with my eating habits. It never lasted very long. But it was those same pressures that had me on 20,000 different diets since I was 11 years old.
“It’s gotten to the point where I accept that I’m a thick female and just work on being healthier, not necessarily skinnier.”
But while Font has come to terms with her body, others at UM have not had the same luck.
“It’s hard to live in Miami and not feel the pressure to look good,” said one sophomore who asked not to be named. “I find myself constantly trying to look like everyone else down here. Everyone has this perfect body. I want to look like that.
“I’ve tried many different things. I’ve been on one diet after another. It got so bad at one point that I was only eating one small meal a day, which usually consisted of a small salad. And even when I lost the weight I wanted to I still didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. And so I started to exercise non-stop.”
Excessive exercise is another problem that has been on the rise for the last several years, Kahn said.
“For the last several decades compulsive exercise has become a major issue,” Kahn said. “It all stems from the same reasons for eating disorders. Many students see an image of what is supposedly beautiful and over-exercise to get that way.”
Another issue, while not unique to Miami alone, is the use of club drugs. Ecstasy, GHB and other rave drugs have been on the rise in recent years. And with an abundance of different clubs and easy access to drugs, many students find themselves diving into that realm.
“I came to school and did not so much as even drink before I got here,” said a junior who asked not to be named. “But that quickly changed. I started going to clubs and saw people taking ecstasy and having a great time. They offered me one and I took it.
“It was a great feeling. I loved it and so I did it many more times after that. But after awhile I started to realize that my grades were suffering and that my mood was very up and down. I realized I had a problem and finally sought help for it.”
And seeking help seems to be the trend among students, not only for unique problems but also for the more traditional mental health ailments.
With the dramatic increase of students seeking help over the last decade, UM is on its toes, increasing the number of counselors at the Counseling Center and starting other programs throughout the school.
The school now boasts seven full-time counselors and three interns in their fifth year of training, as well as three other practicum physicians in their second or third year in training. UM has also brought in a social worker for the Dean of Students office. Everyday there are 10 full-time people, said Dr. Pamela Deroian, assistant director of UM’s Counseling Center.
The Counseling Center has been constantly changing and trying to keep up with the changes. If a student is unable to come in for counseling, the Counseling Center now offers helpful guides on a wide variety of different issues ranging from body issues to dealing with stress. Information can be found at http://www.miami.edu/counseling-center/.
UM also has other services for students to take advantage of including S.A.R.T. [Sexual Assault Response Team]. S.A.R.T. is a 24-hour hotline for any student who has been sexually battered, assaulted or molested. Trained volunteers are on hand to speak privately over the phone. The service is available to both men and women. The S.A.R.T. hotline number is 305-798-6666. Other services include C.O.P.E. [Counseling Outreach Peer Education] and Cane Cares, for those who have problems with eating disorders.
“This has been a stellar year for us,” Deroian said. “The last two years in particular. We’ve been out there so much more. We’re so much more involved in orientation and we have some very strong outreach programs.
“I know whether or not I’m here, those outreach programs are going to stay. That’s a wonderful thing. I’m also a firm believer in change. Every year I want to see the Counseling Center change, I want to see us grow, I want to see us target something new – stay in tune with wherever students are. Stay in tune with what students’ needs are and develop programs and treatments that will help students with whatever it is that they present.”
But the Counseling Center is not involving only itself with student mental health. Speakers are brought it to train the staff about what to look out for. Residential advisors go through training, and faculty is constantly on the lookout for problems, said Dr. Patricia Whitely, vice president for student affairs.
“That’s the art of four prongs,” Whitely said. “There is the Wellness Center and the programs that they are doing. There’s the Health Center and Counseling Center and also some of our leadership programs in helping students with time management. There’s also the Academic Development Center as well as the residential colleges. Everyone is trying to do programs.”
But Whitely also points out that students having problems need to make the first step before it becomes too late.
“There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved but we need to know about it,” Whitely said. “And so sometimes students wait until the last minute and that also gets to be a bigger crisis.”
Jordan Rodack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..