Art Students’ Mental Health: A Complicated Picture

By Daniel Grant

Art institutes, like all colleges, strive to put their best foot forward when appealing to prospective students and their parents: These are our art studios; this is our distinguished faculty; have a look at our art library.

However, considering how many students avail themselves of mental-health therapy in the course of a given year—10 percent of the student body at the Rhode Island School of Design, 25 percent at the Maryland Institute College of Art, 30 percent at the Savannah College of Art and Design—perhaps the college’s counseling center should be a stop on the tour.

All college students face stress, but mental-health professionals say art students face particular, and particularly intense, kinds of stress that their peers in many other scholastic situations don’t. And while crises may spur some art students to seek help, others incorporate therapeutic resources as part of their overall development.

“It’s a healthy thing for students to come here,” says Tamara Knapp-Grosz, a psychologist and director of counseling and support services at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Most come for reasons of personal growth.”

Many students have considerable experience working with therapists and psychiatrists before they arrive at art colleges. Nationally, some 15 percent of students entering college are already on a prescribed psychotropic medication (for anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, depression, or some other condition), according to results of a 2009 survey conducted by Pennsylvania State University’s Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health. Art-college students are no exception. Between 10 and 15 percent of the students entering the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are on a psychotropic medication, as are a quarter of the students entering the counseling centers of RISD and the Maryland Institute. Those numbers can rise as students deal with the stress of college life.

A growing number of independent art colleges have established counseling centers that are separate from a medical office, staffed by therapists, psychologists, and the occasional psychiatrist. Those centers vary widely in their resources. Two part-time therapists tend to the needs of the 350-student Maine College of Art, in Portland, while the Minneapolis College of Art and Design has only one counseling psychologist for its entire student body of 700. The counseling center for the 2,000-student Massachusetts College of Art and Design, in Boston, has one full-time psychologist, says the center’s director, Betsy Smith, “and three part-time people to help me.”

Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, in Connecticut, has one therapist coming in twice a week, while the Memphis College of Art, in Tennessee, has no one on staff but refers students to the counseling center at the University of Memphis, which charges $10 per visit.

The counseling center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago permits 16 free therapy sessions per degree. “We follow the short-term model, because of resource issues,” says the center’s director, Joseph Behen. Those who need more help, or a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication, are referred to off-campus providers.

The Maryland Institute offers 14 therapy sessions per calendar year and has a part-time psychiatrist (three hours every other week) who can prescribe.

Two of the largest independent art colleges in the United States, Pratt Institute (4,800 students) and the Savannah College of Art and Design (9,000 students), both have full-time psychiatrists or psychiatric nurses who can write prescriptions.

As a practical matter, colleges that set a limit on the number of therapy sessions sometimes will exceed that number, therapists’ case loads permitting, if a student doesn’t have health insurance or the ability to afford a copayment, or if the student is unlikely to go to an off-campus clinic or doctor’s office.

The overwhelming majority of problems that art students bring to a college’s counseling center are not related to the artwork they are creating but are common to most young adults—anxiety, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, panic attacks, relationship problems, and substance abuse. Some students may come to the center because of poor study habits or acting out in class, while others may be diagnosed as being obsessive-compulsive or suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The American College Health Association’s 2009 National College Health Assessment said that 19 percent of all U.S. college students report one of those conditions.

But even if these aren’t “art” problems, many of the therapists and psychologists working in art colleges’ counseling centers tend to have a connection to art (perhaps as hobbyist or having taken some art classes). Wayne Assing, director of RISD’s counseling center, says his staff has “a deep appreciation of art and a deeper appreciation of the process of art and the development of one’s artistic identity.” Martha Cedarholm, a nurse practitioner and director of Pratt Institute’s counseling center, says her staff is attentive to the problems of “treating depression or ADD”—attention deficit disorder—“without flattening students so that they lose some of their creativity.”

“A treatment that works well in an art-history class,” she says, “might not work well in a painting class.”

It also helps if the therapist understands how the art-college experience and program differs from that of other colleges. Tom Glaser, the psychologist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, says studio-art classes may last six hours at a time, “and you may have three or four of those in a given week, and then you have academic courses that usually last an hour and assign homework.”

“The sheer amount of work here is greater than at any other school I’ve worked in, and students have less free time,” says Glaser, who previously worked in the counseling centers at a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin and at Carleton College.

Assing says studio-art training can be far more stressful than other fields of study. A psychology major, for instance, learns about the field of psychology—its history, the variety of techniques, the manner in which research is done and written up—without any expectation of developing something markedly new and different by the time they graduate, or ever. The psychology student, in other words, is trained to fit into the field, to be competent.

Art students, in contrast, may receive a certain level of technical training—how to draw the human figure, how to cast bronze, how to render a design on the computer. But they are expected to produce something that is original almost from their first class.

“They have to be creative on demand,” says Patricia Farrell, director of the counseling center at the Maryland Institute College of Art, “and they then have to handle a public critique.” Critiques are assessments, in-class but sometimes open to anyone in the college, of student work. They can be quite harsh, far different from the experience of being handed back an assignment with a grade on it.)

Cedarholm points out that art students often reveal a lot of personal information about themselves, and frequently are encouraged to do so by their instructors, in the artwork they create. “You can’t hide in art school,” she says.

That can be particularly troublesome for students who have suffered traumatic experiences. “They have had the trauma; replaying it in their art can be retraumatizing for them, and then they get a critique, which retraumatizes them again,” says Cedarholm. Counselors at her center, she says, talk to students on the need to reveal less about themselves, and occasionally will contact department heads who are asked to advise faculty members to “back off a subject and allow a student more privacy.”

All the while, students are placed in a highly competitive environment. Everyone was the art star at his or her high school and everyone is striving to do unique work. But the students are also attempting to develop their identities and beginning to recognize that most of them—in the fine-art realm anyway—are unlikely to be successful as professional artists. Even when the work they create isn’t personal, many students still personalize the critique, taking the comments as criticism of themselves and not just of their art.

Bottom line, says Cedarholm: “Art school is a traumatizing experience.”

Students and their parents tend to view colleges in terms of proximity to home, cost, strengths of certain departments, and how much the students there seem like kindred spirits. But it may be wise to evaluate colleges, too, in terms of how good a fit they might be psychologically and by the availability of on-campus mental-health services.

“It appears that art school is more stressful than other schools,” Tom Glaser says. Certain students relish that type of experience more than others. For some who have felt like outsiders in high school, an art college may be an ideal situation.

But for others, says Assing, it may be too intense without other activities that “balance out one’s life.”

“You need other outlets, like athletics. There is a hockey team at RISD, and our center leads mindfulness meditation,” he says.

Students who crave more balance—attending classes that aren’t six hours long, talking to people who aren’t artists, or just going to a college football game—might find that pursuing a studio-art degree at a liberal-arts college or university is the best bet. But even those who thrive on art colleges’ intensity might feel more comfortable knowing there’s professional help at hand if that intensity sometimes overwhelms them.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books on the arts, all published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist (4th edition, 2010), Selling Art Without Galleries (2006) and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (second edition, 2004). He has been a features reporter at Newsday and The Commercial-Appeal, a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, and a regular contributor to ARTnews magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

Photo: Flickr user Dierk Schaefer

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