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September 9, 2002

Student counsel

By Eric Rangus

Like any good psychologist, Mark McLeod has a sofa in his office. It’s mainly for show. Only about four feet long, the piece is more like an overgrown love seat. Unless someone is uncommonly short, lying on it would be an uncomfortable option.

Good thing the students who see him are always seated.

The Emory University Counseling Center will be 21 years old in January. McLeod was the first person hired to work there in January 1982, and since 1992 he has been its director.

“One of the things that is important about working with this age group is that the second-leading cause of death for college students is suicide,” said McLeod, who earned two degrees at Emory. “So, there isn’t any other place on campus that works with more life-threatening issues than our group.”

The center began its life under the administration of the psychology department in Emory College. When McLeod became director, it moved to the Division of Campus Life, which is a more comfortable fit. The center didn’t belong in an academic department, McLeod said.

Throughout the country, there is an upward trend in college students seeking counseling, and the situation at Emory is no different. The center saw more than 700 students last academic year, and its affiliated peer counseling and Helpline programs helped many more.

“The needs of the students are high,” McLeod said.

Since he is director, McLeod doesn’t often meet students for therapy sessions, but he is able to contribute to their improved mental health in many other ways. Of course, he administers the Counseling Center, which offers not only sessions with licensed therapists, but also acts as a referral mechanism for students who may need more help.

“It’s a conversation between two people,” McLeod said of the therapy sessions given by the counseling center. They are free of charge to Emory students—and never involve lying on a couch. “It’s a focused discussion about something you’re struggling with—that generally speaking is very personal.”

The Counseling Center’s staff consists of five psychologists, including McLeod, two social workers and several interns—three are psychology interns completing their final clinical work before earning their doctorates, and two are social workers from Smith College. Two psychiatrists who used to report to Student Health Services now are also part of the counseling center.

“We’re working together on how to build a team and how we will acknowledge our differences,” McLeod said. Counseling, psychology and social work, he said, are three ways of looking at things. “When we get there, it’s going to be much better for the students because three heads are better than one.”

That team also includes strong relationships with residence life staff members, who often are the first people to notice if students are having problems, and also faculty. McLeod said it is not uncommon for faculty members to refer students to him for help.

Speaking of faculty, McLeod also is an adjunct professor; he teaches a two-hour peer-counseling course in the educational studies department. Many of those students move on to become peer counselors with the Counseling Center.

McLeod listed the center’s peer counseling program and Emory Helpline, both of which are staffed by Emory undergraduates, as two of his favorite programs. Peer counselors are trained to talk with and help students in a more informal atmosphere than a therapy session.

The Helpline, which—like peer counseling—is confidential, is a telephone counseling and referral service. Peer counselors are available from 6–8 p.m. and the Helpline is open from 8:30 p.m.–1 a.m. seven nights a week. All students are volunteers, and they work without pay.

“They are wonderful groups of students,” McLeod said. “Working with them is one of the most rewarding things I do.”

McLeod was not unfamiliar with Emory when he came to campus as a graduate student in 1976; his father and two brothers graduated from here. That is part of the reason McLeod, who grew up in Alabama and north Florida, decided to go to Tulane University for his undergraduate degree.

“For me, going away from home was a really good thing in terms of my development,” he said.

But McLeod earned both his master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology at Emory, and he always knew he wanted to so something in the area. His father was a minister and his mother a social worker, so McLeod had models of mentoring and caretaking.

Just as he was finishing his doctorate, the Counseling Center was coming online. At the suggestion of psychology Professor Steve Nowicki, McLeod applied and was hired as a counselor and assistant director.

“I figured I’d do it for a year or two, and then I’d go work with children and families,” McLeod said. He also wanted to wait to make a move until his wife Amy—also a doctoral student in psychology—earned her degree. “But I just fell in love with it, and 21 years later I’m still here. Every now and then I think about doing something else, but I haven’t found anything better.”

While he has been with the Counseling Center for two decades, McLeod said the general nature of student concerns had not changed. The main issues now—stress, anxiety, depression, academics, interpersonal relationships and family—are the same as in 1982.

What has changed is the intensity of the problems.

The reasons for this aren’t clear, McLeod said, but he offered a couple of industry opinions. One is that mental health care has improved so much that children are receiving it at an earlier age, allowing them to go to college where previously they may not have had the opportunity. However, they still need treatment.

The other possibility was not as positive. “Most students have great relationship skills,” McLeod said. “But there is a growing minority statistically that have very bad interpersonal relationship skills. They’re just not good at it.”

From there, McLeod said, two things can happen. Students expect things will get better when they go away to school and they don’t, or they have a hard time meeting people and aren’t happy. And that is where counseling comes in.

Any student can be beset with problems and concerns dealing with mental health. One particularly vulnerable population is the more than 1,200 freshmen on campus. It’s an atmosphere that McLeod understands.

“They’re coming in, and they’re really excited,” McLeod said. “But they’re also very nervous. They have bundles of energy, and they’re really wanting to meet lots of new people. They don’t have any blinders.

“What they need developmentally is to find out where they fit in,” he continued. “They are trying to find their niche. So while they are very excited about being here, there also is an anxiety about, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ I tell them that they aren’t going to know until they do it. All of them are fully prepared. They are all really smart and, for the most part, they are going to do fine.”

With two days to go until the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, not only freshmen but the entire Emory community will be dealing with a lot of very intense emotions. McLeod isn’t sure what to expect, but he and his staff are prepared.

“There may be a general level of greater need,” he said. “Stress, anxiety and depression may be bubbling up, particularly students who are close to the event.” Those students include residents of New York or Washington, D.C., or someone who may have lost a relative or friend in the attacks, he added.

“Some of that need will be met by friends and relatives, which is completely proper,” McLeod said. “But we’ll be here, too.”