Amherst MagazineSkip repeated navigation.
Amherst College  
Site Map
Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Fall 2002 > There to Help
Dr. Bearce at her desk.
Dr. Jacqueline Bearce directs the college's Counseling Center.

There to Help

The number of students who visit Amherst's peaceful, secluded Counseling Center has grown significantly in recent years. The center, a comfortable suite of third-floor offices tucked under the roof of Johnson Chapel, saw 296 students, or 18 percent of the student population, in 2001-02. That was up from 261 students, 16 percent of undergraduates, in 2000-01. Similar increases were reported on campuses throughout the country.

Like her counterparts elsewhere, Dr. Jacqueline Bearce, the psychologist who directs counseling at Amherst, believes some of last year's increased visits may have resulted from concerns stirred up by the terrorist attacks of September 11.

“As a country, we're certainly more anxious and depressed because of September 11, she said recently, “and students are no different.” In coming to the center with their troubles, most students did not refer specifically to the terrorist attacks, Bearce reported. “They came in with the same concerns as always” (the most common problems being anxiety, depression, adjustment issues and family problems). But there were more students, and “their problems seemed more intense.”

In conversation Bearce listens closely and speaks gently, good qualities to have in her work. She was a part-time psychotherapist on Amherst's counseling staff for 12 years until last year, when she succeeded Dr. Robert May, who went on phased retirement after 30 years as director. Now she is the full-time director, dividing her time roughly half and half between administration and counseling. May continues to work part-time at the center, and to direct the internship training program.

Working with Bearce in the office—all part-time—are four other psychologists, two graduate student interns, and two consulting psychiatrists who see students to assess their possible need for medication. The office also has a full-time counseling assistant/secretary. Besides seeing individual students, the center conducts group workshops throughout the school year on such issues as eating disorders, stress management, motivation (“getting your work done”), and other topics. It also works closely with the college's area coordinators, consulting about issues that come up in dormitory and campus life.

Bearce was a speech pathologist and special education teacher in the New York City public schools in the 1970s. Working with parents' groups, she became interested in helping families with their problems. She then did graduate study in counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, earning her doctorate in 1981. Bearce found herself particularly drawn to “working with the college-age population, mainly because it's such an exciting time in their lives—a big transition from living at home, with families, to independence and preparing for life on their own. I want to make a difference in the lives of students—especially those who are having difficulties.”

She sees some patterns in students' years at college. While the typical problems such as anxiety, depression, bereavement, substance abuse, sexual identity and relationship troubles can occur any time, difficulties with loneliness, social isolation, and homesickness may be especially salient for first-year students. Questions about self-identity and, specifically, choosing a major, are common among sophomores and juniors (“My whole family are physicians but I want to major in theater. . . .”). Seniors might worry about career choices, or have trouble staying motivated to complete their work at college.

The center's busiest periods seem to be around the middle of the fall and spring semesters when college life is most intense for many students. In those peak seasons, Bearce herself may have 15 or 20 counseling sessions a week, and students also are given appointments with the other counselors. Typically, students are seen at the Counseling Center for an average of about six sessions. Those who require long-term or more intensive treatment than the center can provide are helped with referrals to therapists in the Amherst area.

“All of the problems that students bring in are part of the human experience,” Bearce said. “It's when those problems interfere with their lives, with their academics or their social effectiveness, that they may need help.” A counselor's frequent approach is to listen and then help students work on solutions. “When we're working with students we want to help them develop life skills—such as problem-solving skills, coping strategies, self-management skills.” A depressed student, for instance, “might decide that 'everybody else on campus is having fun but me,' or, 'everybody else understands what the professor is saying, so I must be dumb.' All of us have a tendency to reach conclusions about the world depending on how we feel emotionally,” Bearce noted. In cases like these, she and her fellow counselors might try to help students recognize their thoughts and feelings and address faulty reasoning.

The center has experienced a fairly steady increase in the number of students seeking counseling. There were 173 such visitors in 1993-94; seven years later, in 2000-01, the number had grown to 261—a 51-percent increase.

Bearce and others speculate about various factors that may account for this growth, which also has occurred nationwide. For one thing, medical treatments for problems like depression have improved, and “this has allowed people who have had significant problems to come to college and be successful students,” she said. Also, the culture is more understanding of mental and emotional stresses than it used to be; there's less of a stigma attached to seeking help.

“It's more okay to talk about these problems,” Bearce said. “ I'm glad to see it.”

Photo: Frank Ward


Online Extra


Amherst College Counseling Center

  E-mail the Editor  
Search Amherst magazine