12/20/2010 05:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Art Schools Add Mental Health Centers

Art schools, like all other 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 the fact that a sizeable number of students at art schools and other colleges come in for mental health therapy in the course of 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 school's counseling center should be a stop on the tour.

"It's a healthy thing for students to come here," said Tamara Knapp-Grosz, a psychologist and director of counseling and support services at the Savannah College of Art and Design, adding that "most come for reasons of personal growth."

Others come because they already have considerable experience working with therapists and psychiatrists. Nationally, approximately 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 a 2009 survey conducted by Penn State University's Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health. Art school students are part of that same trend. Between 10 and 15 percent of the students entering the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are on one or another medication, and a quarter of the students entering the counseling centers of RISD and the Maryland Institute are taking some psychotropic. Those numbers may 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. These centers sometimes are quite limited -- two part-time therapists tend to the needs of the 350-student Maine College of Art in Portland, for instance, while the Minneapolis College of Art and Design has only one counseling psychologist for its entire student body of 700 and the 2,000-student Boston-based Massachusetts College of Art and Design's counseling center has one full-time psychologist, its director Betsy Smith, "and three part-time people to help me" -- which may constrict the services they can provide.

Some art colleges offer far more services than others, perhaps based on the size of the student body and their financial resources. LymeAcademy College of Art 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," said the center's director Joseph Beher. Those needing more help, or a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication, are referred to off-campus providers. The Maryland Institute is more generous in this realm, offering 14 therapy sessions per calendar year, and the school also has a very 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, schools that set a limit on the number of therapy sessions will exceed the number when a student doesn't have health insurance or the ability to afford a co-payment or is unlikely to go to an off-campus clinic or doctor's office. Others also may continue seeing an on-campus counselor past the limit if the therapist's case load permits.

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 at this stage of life, such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, panic attacks, relationship problems and substance abuse. Some may come to the center because of poor study habits or acting out in class, while others may be diagnosed as obsessive compulsives or suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The American College Health Association's 2009 National College Health Assessment identified 19 percent of all U.S. college students reporting one or another of these conditions.

Even if these aren't "art" problems, many of the therapists and psychologists working in art schools' 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, stated that his staff had "a deep appreciation of art and a deeper appreciation of the process of art and the development of one's artistic identity," while Martha Cedarholm, a nurse practitioner and director of Pratt Institute's counseling center, noted that her staff was attentive to the problems of "treating depression of 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 might not work well in a painting class."

It also helps if the therapy staff understands how the art school experience and program differs from that of other colleges. Tom Glaser, the one psychologist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, noted that 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" -- he had previously worked in the counseling centers at a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin and at Carlton College -- "and students have less free time."

Assing noted that 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 new and different by the time they graduate or ever. They are trained to fit into the field, to be competent. Art students, on the other hand, may receive a certain level of technical training (how to draw the human figure, how to cast bronze or how to render a design on the computer, for example), but they are expected to produce something that is original almost from their first class. "They have to be creative on demand," said 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 the in-class and sometimes open-to-anyone-in-the-school assessments of student work that can be quite harsh and are not comparable to the experience of being handed back an assignment with a grade on it that most other college students experience.)

"You can't hide in art school," Cedarholm said, noting that 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. This 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." She stated that counselors at her center talk to students on the need to reveal less about themselves, and occasionally will contact school department heads who are directed to speak to faculty members in order to advise them 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 be unique in their work) while attempting to develop their identity 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 art they create isn't person, many students still personalize the critique, taking the comments as criticism of themselves and not just of their work. "Art school is a traumatizing experience," Cedarholm said.

That may be going too far. However, students and their parents tend to view colleges in terms of proximity to home, the cost, the strengths of certain departments and how much the students there seem like kindred spirits. It may be advisable to evaluate colleges in terms of how good a fit they might be psychologically and the availability of on-campus mental health services. "It appears that art school is more stressful than other schools," Tom Glaser said, and certain students relish that type of experience more than others. For some, an art college may be an ideal situation after having been an outsider for years in high school whereas, for others, it may be too intense without other activities that "balance out one's life," Assing said. "You need other outlets, like athletics. There is a hockey team at RISD, and our center leads mindfulness meditation." Students who crave more balance, classes that aren't six hours long, talking to people who aren't artists or just attending a college football game, might find that pursuing a studio art degree at a liberal arts college or university is just the thing.