BY RAUL CAMINO
In “The Elephant in the Room” segment of last year’s “Fresh Check Day,” 20 percent of students wrote down that anxiety was their biggest concern.
The statistic comes from a binder entitled “The Elephant in the Room,” located at the college’s Counseling Center. The binder contains 180 plus page compilation of student testimonies from the event. Two other notable concerns of students were depression and racism. Depression was a concern for 18 percent of students and racism was a concern for 14 percent of students.
According to the college’s full-time mental health counselor, Lisa Slade, the binder came from the “Fresh Check Day” event last year. The event is a mental health awareness initiative that was designed by the Jordan Porco Foundation–which honors its namesake, an 18-year-old former student of St. Michael’s College who committed suicide.
Slade, who has worked at the college for a year, said she was excited about coordinating the event with the Counseling Center. One of the booths offered at the event was called “The Elephant in the Room.” Volunteers from the Norwalk community, as well as mental health agencies, handed students a sheet of paper with a pink elephant, upon which they could write about what concerned them the most.
Slade said that “The Elephant in the Room” segment focused on the things that students are concerned about, but do not voice.
“The ‘elephant in the room’ is the thing that goes unsaid. It’s the secret. It’s the thing that no one’s talking about but everyone knows and can feel that it’s there,” Slade said.
Slade said this was an opportunity for people to express themselves and “free” the “elephant in the room” while being out of the spotlight.
“Students were able to anonymously write whatever thing they had been holding on to on these elephants and release it into the atmosphere. It was a safe activity,” Slade said.
What the volunteers did next was hang the elephants up so that everyone could see–the idea being to share their struggles with others who may identify with them. In that way, Slade said she hoped those who suffered anonymously, would not suffer in silence.
“The beauty of that is, once you release something you’ve been holding onto for some time, it doesn’t have that much power over you,” Slade said. “It’s freeing and people feel like they finally got that burden off their shoulders. That’s what the whole activity was about.”
At the end of “Fresh Check Day,” the elephants were taken down and wound up in Slade’s possession. Contemplating the fate of these elephants, she decided to compile them in a binder.
“I wanted other people to continue to be able to share and my hope is that people find the same courage and are able to release their secrets, and fears, and anxieties, and free the “elephant” in their own lives,” Slade said.
In some cases, when Slade advises students, she said many of the subjects tackled at the event come to light. Students who are in need of academic adjustment, for mental health issues or other disabilities, are referred by Slade to Fran Apfel, coordinator of academic adjustment, whose office is located at E107.
According to Apfel, students are helped on a case by case basis. The criteria for this service is based on the functional limitations the student has, which, she said, can be extremely varied. If a student’s disability affects their ability to meet basic course procedures and policies, and if there is a valid or documented reason of a functional limitation, they then may be eligible to receive an academic adjustment.
“We never change the academic requirements. It depends on a student’s’ specific needs,” Apfel said.
According to Apfel, there are many reasons why students have difficulty. Apfel said she believes that those in need require support both within and outside of the college. When students come to see her, she provides them information about mental health issues, the college’s counseling services and tutoring.
“There is not one solution,” Apfel said. “There’s not one resource alone that can solve everybody’s stress. It’s about wanting to make sure that students have the support that they need.”
The Student Disabilities Services office, Apfel said, is specifically in charge of providing academic adjustments and other auxiliary aids, not psychiatric help. Incoming students may also receive help picking classes. Of those students, Apfel sees growth and confidence in the years that pass.
“I think it is apparent that this is a very supportive community for students, and I think we do a very good job,” Apfel said. “I see tremendous growth.”
Courtney Anstett, coordinator of service learning at the college, volunteered at last year’s “Fresh Check Day” representing “The Pantry @ NCC.” She said that the pantry is a helpful resource for students who struggle with food insecurity.
“A lot of anxiety for students is having to work a lot and having less time to study [in order] to put food on the table. The pantry is a resource that can alleviate some of those barriers for students to be successful,” Anstett said.
Anstett said that students are not only benefitting from the pantry, but other resources around the college. She praised its progress in helping students overcome personal barriers.
Anstett said, “I think for a long time we didn’t have the resources to address the issues as much as we do now. Bringing programs to the campus and more resources to the students is really great. It’s what we need.”