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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.”