In our last article of this overseas special, mental health professionals told Ewha Voice that the biggest challenge for Korean universities’ psychological services is lack of support. Counselors and professors attending the 57th University Education Policy Forum on March 30 at Ewha Campus Complex held similar views.
“The government is annually spending about 200 billion won on university-industry collaboration projects, but has zero budget for counseling centers,” said Dr. Oh Hea-young, director of the school’s Student Counseling Center. “Most university counseling services in Korea are in desperate need of financial and policy support.”
“Having a gender or human rights professional is crucial during consultation on sexual violence, and in solving problems that schools face in a time when the MeToo movement is spreading in campus,” said Cheon Seong Moon, president of Korean Counseling Association. “But university gender equality centers often manage these cases with one or two parttime counselors or don’t even have a separate organization.”
Mental health issues is not an unfamiliar topic to students in the United States or Korea, as both countries have witnessed the tragic consequences of not taking this matter seriously. Although students’ need for psychological care are high in both countries, there is a dramatic difference in the measures taken by U.S. and Korean universities and students.
“According to this year’s freshman survey, we were shocked to find that 40 percent of freshmen has experienced suicidal impulses,” said president Kim Hye-sook during her opening speech. “If we don’t take care of our students’ mental health now, the problem is only going to carry on to the next generation.”
In our tour of U.S. universities’ mental health services, Ewha Voice gathered various insights on how Korean universities could improve and expand their services to meet Korean students’ urgent mental health needs.
UPenn; Making space for more discussions on mental health
Four years ago, the suicide of freshman Madison Holleran shocked the U.S. nation and especially those at her college, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). The Ivy League sports star with a high GPA did not seem the type to take her own life. Her social media feeds were full of smiling selfies and pictures with her friends. There was no hint that she might have been suffering from depression. After Madison’s suicide, students started to raise awareness of mental health issues on campus. Support groups started to expand, and some students protested over the lack of attention for student mental health issues. UPenn President Amy Gutmann also spoke out on student suicides.
However, the suicide trend also started to rise. According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, 14 Penn students have committed suicide after Madison Holleran. “Penn Face” became a term used to describe students who were acting normally on the outside while suffering mental health problems on the inside. It is not only the problem of UPenn. According to the data in American College Health Association (ACHA)- National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2017, provided by ACHA’s immediate past president, James Davidson, 87 percent of college students felt overwhelmed anytime within the last 12 months and 84 percent of college students felt exhausted (not from physical activity) anytime within the last 12 months.
To tackle such issues, Active Minds and Actively Moving Forward (AMF) are two of 10 clubs affiliated with mental health started at UPenn. Active Minds was founded by Alison Malmon, who was attending UPenn after the suicide of her 22-year-old brother and college student, Brian Malmon. Recognizing the lack of discourse about mental health among students on campus, she started with her own vision of a mental health club in 2000. Now, Active Minds has spread across the nation with about 400 university chapters supporting and following the same model. Active Minds Penn, which is the first chapter of this national organization, works to spread mental health awareness and education. The club has held numerous events and meetings i n c l u d i n g f r e q u e n t t o p i c a l discussions as well as the annual “Inspire” event, at which arts groups and individuals perform to raise money for Active Minds activities. The group also publishes literary magazines, accepting students’ poetry, essays or other contributions. Gormely and Nagaswami told Ewha Voice that it’s hard to tell what impact Active Minds has had in terms of numbers. However, these projects have had an effect.
“We also have this event called “Chalk Out Stigma”, which is usually held in the fall. We write messages of encouragement along the main streets of campus in chalk,” said Sarah Gormely with Megha Nagaswami, co-presidents of Active Minds Penn. “I think it was last year…someone stopped us and said how important and nice it was to see this, and how it had made their day.” The club has six committees with a total of 60 members along with 12 board members. Many have personal experiences of mental health issues, whether it’d be themselves or their friends.
“Most people at UPenn are more aware of mental health issues compared to other universities. Raising awareness on mental health is really important, especially in college,” Gormely said. “There are already a lot of stresses at college. Classes can be hard and some people might have moved here from somewhere else. But it’s not like people are taking the time to take care of themselves and take care of mental health. That has an impact on the rest of your experience. We have to take care of ourselves and know when to seek help. It’s also about your well-being. It happens to everyone.”
AMF: A space to talk about loss of loved ones
Actively Moving Forward (AMF) is a club specialized in dealing with the grief of losing someone you love. The support group creates a space for discussion. It also does fundraising for organizations such as Walk for Breast Cancer and arranges social events such as dinners with other club members. The club was created by UPenn student David Fajgenbaum in 2006, after his mother had died. He founded it because as a young adult, grieving death was not something that his peers had been through. Now AMF is a national group with 55 other chapters. AMF Co-chair Hannah Rash first joined the club in her freshman year after her brother’s suicide. “It’s a support group for grieving students. I joined to help myself, but now I’m in it to help other people,” Rash said with a smile. With 30 members in the club and an average 10 people joining support groups, AMF works to help bereaved students in “moving forward”.
“In grief, you want to remember your loved ones, but you want to move forward and not be stuck in that,” Rash told Ewha Voice. “You want to move forward and incorporate your memories in your new life. That’s the idea behind Actively Moving Forward. ‘Actively’ means you’re intentionally bringing them [your deceased loved ones] into your life and you’re moving on with this new world without them.” Rash said that AMF members feel comfortable laughing and crying, and can express whatever they want in the group. According to Rash, it is about “Making people feel normal and [able to] breathe again.”
“By meeting with people, I could now laugh about death and our problems, and we cried too. I think we all changed and grew while in the program. I’ve been in it for two years. My co-leadership member has been there for three or four years,” Rash said. “You change in four years. It helps to keep your memory of loved ones from when they were alive.”