Thursday, April 17, 2014

Death & Grad School series: Feeling like Harry Potter at Hooding

There’s this feeling that I haven’t been able to shake lately. Remember that story about the little Dutch boy who noticed water leaking from a dyke (i.e., levee in the US), and stopped the flow of water with his finger? He knew that if he didn’t stop that leak, then the trickle of water would ultimately intensify to a roaring tidal wave breaking down the wall and flooding the village.

Well, that’s me.

On the surface, I’m still me. Talking, debating policy and social justice, ranting about Shonda destroying my heart on Scandal, laughing, etc. And I’m busy enough that most of the time I don’t even realize it.
But every once in a while there’s a quiet moment where it’s just me and my thoughts…and these waves of emotion lapping against the surface of my conscious.

Those waters are dark. I’m afraid of them. I don’t understand them.

So, like the little Dutch boy, I plug the leak. Everything’s fine.

Except it’s not, is it?

The other week my cohort voted to move our law final from final exam week (and 2 days before graduation) to the week before (when another paper was due). Their argument? People’s families were coming into town and they wanted to focus on that. I was immediately annoyed and definitely shot it down at first. Your family is coming into town? #Kanyeshrug Like I care – don’t inconvenience me.
 I eventually voted in favor because I recognized the ‘dissonance’ I was experiencing (oh, #sagrad life!): I have known I am going to be ‘Lil Orphan Harry Potter at Hooding. And maybe I had some anger that I don't have people attending my graduation.

My brother will be there because he lives with me…but my dad died in August. And my mother doesn’t drive and isn’t in the best health (and the car got totaled in the crash anyways). I’ve always had my aunt on my mom’s side and I gained new extended family after the funeral on my dad’s side – but I don’t really think my graduation with my master’s degree is really worth a 6+ hour drive. So that moment when they asked us how many hooding ceremony tickets we needed? Kinda sucked.
This? Won't be me.
 So, the other day I was having dinner with a lovely new friend who was totally ‘student affairs-ing’ me (i.e., asking great counseling questions) and I talked about my more recent life commitments to take care of my brother and mom – and with friends I tend to be a mom-type. He asked “If you’re the caretaker for everyone else, how do you take care of yourself?”


I have singularly the greatest friends in the world, but I’m the caretaker type – I don’t see the need to burden the world with my problems. So why write a blog post about it? Because I know I’m not the only person who will be attending graduation this year without someone important to their existence. If no one talks about it, then all of us dealing with grief just think we’re each dealing with a bout of crazy.

While my relationship with my father was complicated and I have plenty of trauma, he was always there at all my big life events to cheer boisterously (as we low-ses folk do, ya feel me?). 

Not having that voice in the crowd…that makes my soul feeling fucking raw. Vulnerable. Untethered.

I didn’t even realize that while I was plugging the leak in the levee, the walls were cracking from the pressure. I’m cracking.

At least my cracking didn't involve inter-dimensional serial killer aliens? (Doctor Who reference)
I joked with my friend that I was just suppressing until graduation…and as soon as my professor hoods me, I’m just going to crumple on stage crying.

hahaha #butreallytho

It took me a while to come to this realization. This Saturday one of my best friends asked me when my graduation ceremony was, and that he and another friend will likely attend…and I started crying. And subsequently did as well when two local friends said they were coming today.
yeah, I basically ugly-cried in my office...
Ever since my dad died, I’ve felt like Buffy Summers. Just like in the episode “The Body” when her mom died, I have stayed calm & collected (mostly) in front of others, making all the arrangements. Taking care of those around me. Like her, it feels like the weight of the world is on me.

But it will be okay. If I’m Buffy, then I’ve got some kick ass ‘Scoobies’ in my life.  And even if I feel like Harry Potter sometimes, at least I have some Weasleys in my life :)

Geek problems = Unable to select just one reference. But you get the gist. Life sometimes sucks - but eventually it'll be okay.
As Bobby Singer (Supernatural) said “Family don’t end in blood”.

Shout out to all my fellow grad school peeps who will be missing someone(s) important at graduation. 
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God* hold you in the palm of His hand

 *Or whomever you like, or no one, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster! :)

Death & Grad School Series
1. The Integration of Social Media in the Grief Process
2. Feeling Like Harry Potter at Hooding

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Finishing Grad School By the Light of the Moon

My grad life

Like the cycles of the moon, life moves forward in a mysterious yet predictable fashion.

With the new moon you see only darkness. As it waxes, it reaches the point of a first quarter moon, half moon, last-quarter moon, and finally a full moon. Then the moon begins to wane as darkness slides over it, obscuring it, until you can see only a last-quarter moon, half moon, then a first quarter moon, and then nothing at all. The cycle begins anew as slivers of silver begin to appear in the sky.

Such as many masters programs, my time at Indiana University in the HESA program includes four semesters of work over a course of two years. The metaphor of the moon cycles appears an apt description of my time here. And of course, like any student affairs persona, what else would I do as graduation nears but reflect on my experience? ;)

Or, the first semester

Have you ever walked under the night sky during the phase of a new moon? There is only darkness. Shadows are cast from the dim light of the twinkling stars. Our eyes strain to adjust to this new, dark environment but paths are concealed. Where do we go? We cannot see. Even if we know this landscape by daylight, at night the most innocuous of objects can appear sinister in the shadows. It is a traditional human trait to be wary of the unseen, to feel trepidation to forge a new path in the darkness.

And yet.

There is beauty in darkness. It is a blank canvas awaiting a master artist. You cannot see your path? That is fine. Imagine it. What do you want to see? Possibilities await you. While you may stumble in the dark, you can create new paths and determine your future.

Or, the second semester

The cool gaze of the moon drifts over the land, illuminating bits and pieces of what lays before you. You’re no longer as lost as you once was. You’re beginning to get the hang of this thing called grad school. There’s a pattern in your life – class, work, and personal time. For once you’re starting to feel like you know what you’re doing.

But that sliver of moonlight is not quite enough. This land is still shrouded in shadow. One moment you feel like you know exactly what you are doing…and the next you’re stumbling, falling hard to the ground. Your knees bruise. While your hands reached out and prevented your face from crashing into the dirt, but they are stinging fiercely. You ache. Sometimes you wonder why you’re still here. It would be so much easier to quit.

Something catches your eye. A sliver of moonlight drifts into the path, illuminating where you’ve already journeyed from. You’ve worked hard. You’ve been tested. You are being tested.

As the moon arcs across the sky you see a glimpse of the path before you. Hope sings in your heart and you remember why you are here. And what you have to look forward to.

You keep walking.

Or, the third semester

Wide swaths of moonlight cut across the darkness.  As you journey down the path you’ve forged, you feel refreshed in the sweet, pale light. This is good. Life feels good. You can see more of the landscape around you with each passing day; and with each passing day you feel more and more confident. You are competent at your graduate assistantship – hell, sometimes you are downright fantastic at your job. There’s a new set of classes, but you’re familiar with your professors, the quality of work expected, and know your classmates well enough. Why, you even have friends at this stage.

You’re happy.

Yet while you are growing in confidence, the shadows linger. Moonlight does not touch all areas of the landscape. In the darkness lies the changes in our life that inspire fear, discomfort, worry, or any other myriad of unpleasant thoughts. Perhaps you’ve realized that your dreams are changing – instead of working in one area you recognize that you may be more passionate for another functional area. Or perhaps there’s been a tremendous change in your life – family death/illness, relationship change, assistantship change, department turnover, etc.

The shadows are diminishing but their presence can still inspire feelings like self-doubt. You question yourself. You question your life. You question your decisions. Are you on the right path?

You look around and take a deep breath. You’ve journeyed far. The tests you’ve endured have built you up. You remember your confidence. And so you deal with those unpleasant feelings and keep moving forward.

Or, the fourth semester

Pale light nearly encompasses everything. You can see most of your path. In fact, there’s not much of the path left. Graduation, that moment the full moon rises, is nearing.

You survey the land; after all this time you are still a bit surprised by how much you can see under the moon’s light. You’ve accomplished a good deal within your assistantship, practicum experiences, classes, and other personal accomplishments.

The path you are walking is mostly lit and you no longer feel as though you are walking in darkness. This semester you will have your final set of classes, begin the transition process at your assistantship, enjoy what time you have left with your friends, and initiate the job search process…

And therein the shadows persist.

You can see the path that leads to graduation, but what comes next? Will you be able to find a job? Will you be able to find the right job?

Your stomach knots. You begin to worry. There’s a hollow feeling in your chest as anxiety rises. The shadows are diminishing, yes, but you can practically hear them begin to whisper cruel things; you will never find a job, you will be the only person within your cohort to not find a job – its ramen and your parents’ basement for the future…

But you refuse to succumb to the darkness. You’ve seen the pattern. You know where your path leads. More light enters your life as time passes. Reflecting on past cohorts reminds you that each of them experienced this anxiety as well. And they all found jobs. Or, at least, that’s what Facebook says – and you can always trust things you read on the internet.

You smile.

There’s a sliver of darkness that crosses into your path but you skip over it. You know who you are. And what you’re capable of. Graduate school has illuminated that much.

It’s going to be okay.

Or, Graduation

The world is drenched in light and you can finally see everything. Shadows have abated. You’re graduating. You have a job. Your life is taking off.

And in that moment, you feel a twinge of sorrow. This part of your life is ending. It is bittersweet.

You also realize, that while you are at the apex of the cycle, enjoying the light of the full moon, darkness will soon begin to sweep over your life. The cycle is relentless.

Sorrow is replaced by a dollop of fear; you wonder what will come next. When the shadows of uncertainty and new experience slide across the landscape, will you choose the correct path?

You may not. And that’s okay. You’ve been through this. You understand the cycle. Although the new moon can bring about darkness and fear, it is a blank canvas.

And you, my friend, are a master painter.

Comments are encouraged. How does this compare to your experience? You are welcome to leave comments here or connect with me on Twitter at @NikiMessmore

Enjoy your canvas :)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Are We Failing Our Students with Mental Illness?


"Student affairs people are not angels tossing around the fairy dust of equality and love for all. They are real people who have been shaped by society and their personal experiences" 


What if I told you that student affairs graduate programs (and the field in general) are ignoring 25% of the students we work with?

If you’re a cynic (or, let’s be real, just paying attention to higher ed issues), you would probably not be surprised. For all the sweet talk of social justice we still have yet to overthrow the oppressing factors within our institutional structures.

But at least we talk about some social justice topics even if we aren’t collectively taking action as much as we should. We’re barely talking about the following population of students.

According to NAMI and other researchers, more than 25% of college students have a mental illness.

Campus counseling center directors state that there has been an 85% rise in students with severe psychological issues being treated in the last five years. Student affairs administrators reported that they were spending more time dealing with troubled students and had seen marked increases in the following serious mental health problems on campus: Eating Disorders (+58%), Drug Abuse (+42%), Alcohol Abuse (+35%), Classroom Disruption (+44%), Gambling (25%), and Suicide Attempts (+23%) (Kitzrow, 2003, p.169).

These increases are a result of factors such as: some mental illnesses manifest in early adulthood (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia), new medicine and better childhood treatment measures allow students with mental illness to attend college who would have been unable in the past, society is placing new pressures on students, and it is becoming more socially acceptable to seek treatment which makes members of this population more visible at health centers and in research (Kitzrow, 2003, p.171).

So…why on earth are we not becoming more educated on these topics within graduate programs and professional development?

To play devil’s advocate, I could argue that we just simply do not have time. Most programs are 2-year programs and there’s barely enough time to cover more than the basics of counseling, diversity, administration, theory, etc. Besides, if students really want to learn more about mental health, they can always take a counseling or psychology elective!

And…well, I could say that we work in student affairs, not the counseling center. We are not equipped to fully treat students with mental illness. If a student says they are going through an issue we are, however, equipped to talk to them and point them to the right resources.

Okay, but really…

Those excuses don’t cut it. First, graduate students and current professionals need to take initiative in learning more on the issues we do not cover in our courses and professional development. On the flip side of the coin, by not educating student affairs graduate students in their programs and practitioners in the field via professional development, we are failing our students.

It’s not even about failing our students…we are a danger to our students.

"Whoa girl, stop"

“Whoa, you did not just say that.”

Student affairs people are not angels tossing around the fairy dust of equality and love for all. They are real people who have been shaped by society and their personal experiences. And if there is one thing that society is good at, it is helping to embed all sorts of prejudices within our minds with the subtlety of a mosquito – unless we scratch that itch it left behind, we usually don’t even notice or forget all about it.

Mental health stigma is a real thing. Think about it. How many times have you called someone “crazy” “schizo” “OCD” “bipolar”? Or said something like “Ugh, I’m so depressed ever since Firefly was cancelled” when at worst you were sad about it or at best it was just a minor annoyance? Or how many times have you judged someone for their real or perceived mental illness?

Dude, stop being so PC,” you might say. And I would respond that a survey of people with mental illness cited repeated instances of dealing with stigma in their lives (Wahl, 1999) and that a moment to critically think about society and pop culture will have you recalling examples quicker than K Fed’s career (who?). Sure, to you calling yourself “OCD” is a ‘funny’ way of saying you like things organized but someone with OCD who overhears you may just feel mocked and dehumanized. Microaggressions are like papercuts – they sting and seem insignificant at first…until those cuts begin multiplying and become increasingly painful.

There are real life consequences of the lack of education in student affairs and inherent bias we all have (thanks Obama!). 
  • 64 percent of young adults who are no longer in college are not attending college because of a mental health related reason.11 Depression, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder are the primary diagnoses of these young adults.12
  • 31 percent of college students have felt so depressed in the past year that it was difficult to function and more than 50 percent have felt overwhelming anxiety, making it hard to succeed academically.13 
  • More than 45 percent of young adults who stopped attending college because of mental health related reasons did not request accommodations.14 50 percent of them did not access mental health services and supports either.15
  • Overall, 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help.16 57 percent of them did not request accommodations from their school.17
  • Concern of stigma is the number one reason students do not seek help.18 (NAMI)

“So what you’re saying is student affairs is the worst and these stats are all our faults…” Nope! Definitely not! We just have some work to do. Unlike what people think, we’re not superheroes and most certainly not saviors.

But imagine how different the landscape would look like if we knew how to recognize symptoms, insert more programming and services for students with mental illness, and knew how to better train our staff (including student staff) on these issues. What if instead of letting words slide like “I’m so depressed” we actually became comfortable asking tough questions like “What do you mean by that?” and straight up offering resources? It’s difficult to have those questions if we feel uneducated on the subject. After all, what if they really do feel depressed? How do we react??

I’m not saying that no one in student affairs does this. There are phenomenal people out there who are trying to meet mental health needs on campuses. But instead of typically ignoring it in the curriculum and professional development, how about we make some changes?

Where to start making changes?
Following up, I’m not some political pundit who spits out thoughtless complaints without ideas for how to make changes. This is an issue of justice that I feel passionate about. Therefore, my contribution to the movement is to hold a discussion group with fellow HESA graduate students this semester. Seeing the lack of structured conversations on important issues like social justice taking place outside the classroom; and the overall desire by HESA students to have these conversations, I began DADA (Discussions Advancing Deeper Awareness). Clearly my Harry Potter geekiness contributed to the name, but my drive to change campus climates resulted in this group. DADA is a grassroots structured discussion group that so far this year has included 14 students in two discussion groups on the topic of “Spirituality” and “Mental Health Reboot”. It’s an opportunity to share personal experiences, ask questions, and philosophize – with research interwoven throughout.

What about you? How do you see yourself contributing to education on mental illness within our field and working towards justice for our students with mental illness? What are you already doing? Comment below or tweet at me (@NikiMessmore) with your thoughts and ideas. 

Join DADA today as we learn the Defense Against the Dark Arts of Social Injustice! :)

References & Resources:

Kitzrow, M. A. (2003). The mental health needs of today’s college students: Challenges and recommendations. NASPA journal, 41(1), 167-181. Retrieved from

Hunt, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2010). Mental health problems and help-seeking behavior among college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(1), 3-10. Retrieved from

Eisenberg, D., Downs, M. F., Golberstein, E., & Zivin, K. (2009). Stigma and help seeking for mental health among college students. Medical Care Research and Review, 66(5), 522-541. Retrieved from

Mori, S. C. (2000). Addressing the mental health concerns of international students. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 137-144. Retrieved from

Kisch, J., Leino, E. V., & Silverman, M. M. (2005). Aspects of suicidal behavior, depression, and treatment in college students: results from the spring 2000 national college health assessment survey. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(1), 3-13. Retrieved from,%20Depression,and%20Treatment%20in%20College%20Students%20%28E%29.pdf

Nigatu, H. (September 19, 2013). 21 Comics that Capture the Frustrations of Depression. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from

Corrigan, P. W. (2000). Mental health stigma as social attribution: Implications for research methods and attitude change. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(1), 48-67.

Wahl, O. F. (1999). Mental health consumers' experience of stigma. Schizophrenia bulletin, 25(3), 467. Retrieved from

NAMI (n.d.). Learn about the issue. Retrieved from