Ali Budz was a new student in a new environment with a changing mindset.

“I had always struggled with my mental health concerns,” she said.

In the fall of 2014, Budz was a freshly minted freshman at Washington & Jefferson College. This can be a trying time for many in their late teens, with separation from family and friends and a passel of uncertainties. Yet she was poised.

“I worked my way through (the concerns), and when I got into college, I was through the major part of my issues. I was in position to be an advocate.”

A proactive advocate. Budz could empathize with peers dealing with similar issues and decided to help them. She became familiar with Active Minds, a national nonprofit devoted to helping college students. It is open to all of them, confidential and largely peer-driven, and strives to encourage them to speak freely about mental health matters – to get past that stigma — and reach out to counseling services.

Thousands of U.S. and Canadian students are in that network, and there are more than 250 student chapters. W&J has one of them, thanks to Ali Budz. She founded it two years ago, as a first-semester freshman, and is the current president.

“I think we’ve seen, overall, that the attitude toward mental health on campus has changed,” said Budz, a psychology major minoring in neuroscience. “People are more open. If you’re having a bad day, you’re not as likely to cover up.

“We work at getting people informed on counseling services at school. Many make it through their freshman year not knowing about services that are there.”

The region’s two universities — California and Waynesburg — do not have an Active Minds chapter, but they and W&J offer a number of mental health and other counseling services. All of this support is needed, especially on the mental health side, where there is an apparent increase in students ignoring the stigma and seeking help.

“We do see a rise in students seeking counseling, especially personal counseling,” said Jane Owen, director of Waynesburg’s Counseling Center. “There’s much less stigma about mental health counseling. Students value it. We have many who are utilizing the services.”

Owen has worked at the university for 30 years, and the center “was here long before I arrived.” She is one of three full-time counselors, all of whom counsel students in three areas at Waynesburg — academic, career and personal. A licensed social worker also is on staff.

At the personal end, Owen said, “we provide counseling for whatever issue a student comes in for — from homesickness, to a diagnosed mental disorder like depression or anxiety, to students with family issues, grief, eating disorders, relationship issues, social anxiety ...”

Dr. Tim Susick, associate vice president for Student Affairs, said the Counseling Center at California University of Pennsylvania “usually sees 150 to 200 students a semester.” Anxiety and depression are frequently addressed, “but a percentage of students have coexisting problems — a combination of things.”

Colleges, he added, “are seeing more and more students who have Asperger (syndrome) and autism. They’re high-functioning, but need additional support.”

The Cal U. center includes a licensed counselor who is an addiction specialist, two clinical psychologists and three doctoral or master’s-level interns. A psychiatrist is on board on a contract basis.

“The more we can help a student,” Susick said, “the more likely they will stay and complete their degree.”

W&J has a similar center, known officially as the Student Health and Counseling Services Center. The director, Dr. Lisa Hamilton, has been a college psychologist for 20 years, the past nine at W&J, the previous 11 at West Virginia University. She is aware of the mental health stigma.

“You don’t worry about going to a medical doctor or dentist or other doctor.”

At W&J, Active Minds appears to be making headway with breaking down that concept. Budz, now a junior from Cranberry, said her chapter has 70 members and typically draws 15 to 20 for meetings.

“For a campus this size, that’s huge,” Hamilton said.

“Most clubs on this campus have 10 people,” Budz added.

Active Minds, based in Washington, D.C., is not a fledgling organization. University of Pennsylvania student Alison Malmon founded it in 2001, following the suicide of her only brother, Brian. She believes the mental health label and lack of understanding were significant factors in his death, and launched Active Minds on the Penn campus to promote awareness.

Fifteen years later, Malmon is executive director of a program that exists on hundreds of campuses.

It is working at W&J, Budz said.

“I do feel like we’re helping people, even if it’s only to help a person walk to counseling for the first time. We’re looking out for each other.”

She was speaking from experience. Budz said she lacked a support system of her peers in high school, which is why she had to battle through issues on her own. She succeeded, though, and is now a proponent of peer engagement, a foundation of Active Minds.

“It’s so much more helpful to have a peer on your side,” Budz said.

Hamilton echoed that sentiment, saying: “Showing people that people care is huge. I think it’s a really good partnership when a young adult can go to peers first on anything.”

Mental health is a larger part of the college equation today. Students are increasingly seeking assistance from professionals at their schools, and from their peers. Some, like Ali Budz, are helping those in need.

The dynamics of counseling have changed during Jane Owen’s three decades at Waynesburg. Some of them, she said, have been highly positive.

“We have wonderful students. I give them credit. If you can figure out issues at this age, you have a good future.”

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