Stress at Mines: A look into the mental health of the Mines community and what to do about it

With School of Mines’ challenging exams, stiff competition for jobs and internships, and all-encompassing projects, most students would agree that it is often a stressful environment to be a part of. However, a recent and unintentional finding about raised levels of antidepressants in the wastewater coming from Mines Park evokes further concern about campus stress levels and the resources in place to promote positive mental health.

“It’s alarming, but we know that we have a lot of students who take antidepressants so it’s not surprising in that sense,” commented Dean of Students Derek Morgan.

The study, completed at the Mines AQWATEC (Advanced Water Technology Center) facility on campus  last semester, found eight times the average of concentration of antidepressants in the wastewater coming from the Mines Park apartments. However, it is important to note that the study that was conducted was not intended to seach for this finding, but rather was a study focused on water treatment and environmental impact.

“Because we don’t know much about that study, its hard to make any real judgments,” Morgan stated. “We really just don’t have much information.” The university is not currently planning to do any further exploration of this research.

“In terms of mental health, that is a huge issue for our campus and our society,” expressed Morgan. “It’s not solely a Mines issue.” He explained that almost all of the campuses he has spoken with have experienced increased numbers of students with anxiety and depression.

“I do think our services meet the student need,” Morgan stated. “There are lots of different avenues for students to relieve stress, blow off steam. We could always provide more services, but that comes at a cost. I do think that what we offer is a good match.”

“Focusing on things that are not just academic is helpful,” Morgan encourages students. “More intentionally, we have programs in our counseling center, CASA, and the health center, that are really focused on dealing with the issues in a retroactive way but also to give students ideas when they come in.”

In the future, he hopes to focus more heavily on proactive measures and outreach to students.

“This is something our students are dealing with,” Morgan asserted. “We need to be able to talk openly about it.

Dr. Sandra Sims, a licensed psychologist and the director of the Mines Counseling Center, was also able to comment on some of the services available to students.

“We mostly provide individual counseling sessions for a variety of presenting concerns, with the goal of helping students resolve issues that interfere with their ability to successfully navigate the CSM journey,” Sims explained.

Although the services are confidential and mostly covered by student fees, they are currently only utilized by about 10% of the undergraduate and graduate student populations.

“CSM students are notoriously serious, intelligent, competitive people who carry very high expectations,” she expressed. “This mixture can be a recipe for burn-out, thus the need to pace yourselves and know your triggers.”

Sims has found that 30% of Mines students who visit the counseling center are taking psychotropic medication, compared to about 25% of students visiting counseling centers at universities nationwide. However, the proportion of total students taking these medications is unknown.

“I am impressed, however, with the way CSM students look out for each other and make their concerns known,” said Sims. “I think the advocacy and educational efforts taken on by our Active Minds student chapter is impressive and seems to be a safe entry for students to learn and converse about tough subjects.”

Active Minds at Mines, a student-led organization new to campus this school year, seeks to change the stigma of mental health, bring awareness to all types of mental health issues, and refer students to campus resources. The Mines chapter is part of the national organization Active Minds, which was founded in 2003 and currently has over 400 chapters across the nation.

“Travis Canney started the club just last May because, through his own experiences and his experiences as an RA, he saw the need of a club like this at Mines,” explained Alisha Eskew, Vice President of Active Minds. The club currently has about 55 members and is definitely making a name for itself around campus.

“Last semester, we sent out weekly ‘tip’ emails that were a big hit. Here in a few weeks for body love month—February—we will be doing a few events related to eating disorders and creating body positivity,” Eskew said. “Later this semester we are planning to have Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecretU, come speak to the campus.” PostSecretU is an initiative that encourages positive campus conversation by providing a way for students to express their own voice and experiences anonymously.

“We are working with the counseling center and have had some of the counselors at some of our events,” Eskew explained. “In fact, since Active Minds started, the counseling center has had a significant increase in the amount of visits and students seeking help.” Active Minds also partners with the Be Well Committee, Mines Philanthropy Council, MAC, and the Mines’ police department.

“Mental burnout is a huge issue,” Eskew asserted. “There are some things in life, such as investing in interests that one enjoys and keeping long term goals and what is truly important to you in life in mind, that are more important than the fleeting activities that we get caught up in every day because of the pressures of what Mines labels as ‘success.’”

Dr. Sarah Barkley, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Golden who often works with Mines students, suggests meaningful connections with others and healthy habits as a way to manage stress and depression.

“When we are stressed out, a bunch of hormones are released in our system,” Barkley explained. These hormones are treated by the brain as a sign of a predator and can consequently inhibit higher-level thinking and produce a sort of “freeze” response in the mind. “Exercise is the best way to flush them out,” she advised. “If your test is at 11, then you can go for a 20 minute jog at 10. They say 20 minutes is all you need to flush those chemicals out of your system.” Along with physical activity, Barkley also highlights the prominent link between sleep and mental welfare.

“Everyone wants to make it more complicated than it is, but sleep deprivation is one of the surest causes of depression,” Barkely contended. She also explained that because sleep helps integrate new knowledge into the brain, getting a solid night’s sleep before an exam can be more important than waking up early for extra studying. Ultimately, maintaining meaningful, in-person connections with others can help prevent a feeling of isolation in a stressful college environment.

“It’s about being real,” she expressed. “It’s about the energy between two people when they are sitting next to each other talking and laughing and being real with somebody, being courageous. Being able to say ‘I’ve had a really hard time, I’m really struggling.’ Just that alone is human connection, and you are not going to get that on Facebook.”

Regarding antidepressants, Barkley recognizes medication as a helpful way to gain some perspective, but generally encourages her patients to utilize other methods of remaining mentally healthy long term.

“I think the majority of the time, if you can learn skills to manage stress and depression, antidepressants don’t need to be a lifelong commitment,” Barkley explained.

Dr. Sandra Sims of the counseling center encourages Mines students to seek balance and well roundedness but also realize that help is available if needed.

“Realize that you are more than a student, but a whole person who needs a base level of upkeep, to include balance, nutrition, sleep, physical activity, social support and outlets,” she explained. “Stress and sadness are a part of life that we all experience, but when such feelings become so strong that they impact your ability to get through the day, it’s time to seek help.”

While I love math and science, writing for the newspaper gives my life balance and allows me to meet lots of great new people. I am a Chemical Engineering major and I am also involved in Alpha Phi Omega (APO) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). When I am free from my studies, I enjoy traveling with my family, jogging, and baking. If you have an article idea or know of an event or person on campus that should be featured, let me know!

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