From an early age, movies and TV shows paint a party-filled, perfect picture of college that shapes the minds of dreamy-eyed kids—an image that often struggles to directly translate to off-screen universities. Despite repeatedly telling themselves that “this is supposed to be the best four years of your life,” new environments, unfamiliar faces, increased workload, and heightened stress make the transition into college life a rocky one for many freshmen.
For this reason, as well as to serve the various mental health needs of all students, University Counseling Services exists at Boston College, aiming to “enhance the mental health capacity of Boston College students and the capacity of the community to foster emotionally mature, responsible, and self-reliant students,” according to its mission statement.
Recently, Craig Burns has taken the reins as the new Director of UCS, the latest accomplishment in his successful 10 years with the on-campus service. With his new role comes a set of objectives he hopes to achieve in the BC mental health realm.
“My primary goal is to help students find ways to manage their mental health distress in order to remove barriers to learning and growth,” Burns said.
Burns, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, began his work at BC with a post-doctoral fellowship before going on to join UCS in 2006 as a staff psychologist. Since then, he has served as a senior staff psychologist and director of training for UCS, in addition to teaching in the Lynch School of Education and practicing psychology outside of campus.
Throughout his time at BC, Burns and his peers have noticed a “changing landscape” in the field of mental health services for college students—a change that can be directly attributed to shifting needs of the students. Burns noted that the most prominent changes are the “profound increase in numbers of students seeking mental health services of all sorts and the experience of students increasingly seeking emergency services for psychological distress.”
“These increases have many etiologies, including cultural forces which lead to higher rates of anxiety, decreased stigma in seeking help, increased numbers of students coming to college having previous experience with treatment and a desire to continue while in school, and a decline in utilization of peers as sources of support for coping with distress,” Burns said.
Other experts have observed similar trends. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s 2015 annual report, the number of students seeking counseling services has increased by 29.6% over the last six years, and the number of counseling center appointments scheduled has grown by 38.4%. Additionally, students have self-reported consistently increasing amounts of depression, anxiety, and social anxiety.
Within the BC community, Burns explains a range of mental health circumstances: “We see students presenting with a wide range of issues. Anxiety in many forms is most common, but we also see high numbers of students with issues relating to depression, adjustment problems, relationship distress, response to traumas, disordered eating and body image problems, and substance abuse problems, among many other issues.”
To help with the healing process, UCS offers a variety of services, both in one-on-one and group settings. The diverse spectrum of on-campus mental health assistance is already impressive, but Burns expressed a desire to improve upon what already exists.
“While I believe that UCS has provided excellent service in many ways, there is always a need to be open to change as demands change,” Burns said. “I envision UCS making small changes in offering additional forms and modes of help. This may include additional group offerings, and additional use of technology to provide services where there is evidence for the potential of added benefit.”
One specific method of improving overall campus mental health according to Burns is to connect all parts of the BC community. In its partnership with such programs as University Health Services, Residential Life, the Thea Bowman AHANA Intercultural Center, the Women’s Center, and BC Athletics, Burns and UCS stress the importance of person-to-person relationships. He explained the importance of interacting with the BC community to recognize the “diverse needs of diverse populations, be sure that all students are aware of our services and feel welcomed to use them when needed, and to work to recognize trends emerging so that we can plan to meet those needs.”
“In an age where everyone is ‘connected’ and seemingly shares most every aspect of their lives, cultivating meaningful, supportive relationships can nonetheless be difficult for college students,” Burns said.
With some changes on the horizon, Burns remains steadfast in ensuring that students feel welcome and appreciated at BC.
“Students feel great pressure to appear competent and in control," Burns said. "So it’s more imperative than ever for colleges to ensure that students don’t become isolated.”