Howard University's campus in northwest D.C. (Courtesy photo)

The list is long for what a college student is juggling: Studying for classes, paying that college bill, managing relationships, athletics, social events and, for some, being away from home.

How does a student handle it all? At Howard University, many find a place to “talk things out,” at either the Howard University Counseling Service (UCS) or through clergy at Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel.

With a staff of 12 professionals, UCS sees more than 1,100 students a week in confidential one-on-one or group sessions.

“If a student would like a parent at a session, then of course we reach out to make that happen,” said Dr. Ayana Watkins-Northern, UCS director, of the confidentiality of counseling sessions. “If it is felt that an individual receiving counseling could harm themselves or others, then it is our responsibility to inform a family member or the hospital.”

Watkins-Northern said the UCS may be contacted by faculty, a family member or other students when they see a student who may benefit from counseling. For faculty and staff, orientation is offered and UCS counselors may attend staff meetings to reemphasize the availability of counseling on campus.

Because mental health is discussed more openly in society, Howard University students seem to be keenly aware of when help may be needed.

“This generation is more open to seeking help,” said Bernard L. Richardson, dean of Rankin Chapel and associate professor for Pastoral Care and Counseling, “There used to be a stigma regarding counseling especially among African-American men.”

For his doctorate in psychology, Richardson’s dissertation was on attitudes between clergy, Christians, mental professionals and mental illness. Over the years, he has seen a more positive, accepting attitude between counseling in general, spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.

Watkins-Northern and Richardson embrace the strong relationship between the UCS and the Rankin Chapel Office of the Dean is helping students navigate individual concerns.

“Many times, speaking to clergy is the first line someone may take to discuss a problem,” Richardson said.

Rankin Chapel clergy offer pastoral counseling to Howard students as needed. If it is felt a student needs help beyond Rankin Chapel, a referral is made to the UCS.

There is a consensus between Richardson and Watkins-Northern on what challenges students are dealing with day-to-day. In addition to personal challenges, students are further affected by national and global issues, such as the disturbance in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few months ago.

“It’s the same thing adults deal with,” Richardson said.

Watkins-Northern said there is an added dynamic on how students see things and that is through the lens of technology.

“It’s another layer of reality for students,” she said. “Technology impacts how we communicate. You may not see facial expressions as much so one can further understand the words being used. But whether it is the UCS or Rankin Chapel, we are all plugged in together to ensure a student gets the referral that is needed.”

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Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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