Graphic by Sarah Schudt
By Christina Weszelits, JRN 111 Student
Erik Severson was a kind, funny, athletic young man who only wanted to help people and always viewed the world in a positive light.
“He would come off as very shy, but once you got to know him, he was extremely funny, and his smile could light up a room,” said his mother, Theresa Severson of Aurora. “He also championed the underdog, and he loved his family and friends fiercely.”
Within a week of starting his freshman year at the University of Missouri, Erik died by suicide after suffering from bipolar disease and depression for years. Though his mother did everything she could to help him, Erik lost his battle against mental illness.
Unfortunately, like many college students, Erik fell through the cracks when it came to his mental health treatment. Though Erik’s battle took place during the Fall of 2019, the dangerous divide between the need for mental health care and the services available has only widened since the beginning of the pandemic.
“There is a big-time major gap in mental health, and the pandemic has revealed it more than ever right now,” said Shanya Gray, a full-time counselor who has worked at Moraine Valley since 2015. “Most services have waiting lists. There is a high demand for therapists.”
According to Psychiatric Times, “The demand for mental health care may be rising, but the supply of providers has been lagging for years. Back in 2013, a deficit of more than 6,000 psychiatrists was projected for 2025… Today, that estimate has been pushed to more than 7,500.”
Even here at Moraine, our counselors have seen an increase in the demand for mental health treatment.
“Since COVID, our numbers have gone up, and now there is also a lot more work,” Gray said. “What might have been one appointment and done, now we have to reach out and call on behalf of the student, so there are more follow-ups than before.”
Although Moraine Valley has a strong counseling department that provides free, accessible mental health care to students, counselors are feeling the strain as the number of students seeking help increases, remote work has put more demands on their time, and they try to maintain their own mental wellbeing.
“So my workday is usually a composite of student appointments. counseling, whether academic or personal,” said Gray. “It consists of a meeting of consultation with faculty and staff. I also have classes that I teach, and I also teach workshops that I lead, outreach that we do.”
With different activities across the day, the six full-time and five part-time counselors do their best to see every student that needs help. But there is only so much that they can do. Students who need help beyond what the counselors can provide are referred to professionals off campus. However, they may not be seen right away.
“If you can find a psychologist who is taking new patients, the average wait is three months,” Gray said. “That’s not even talking about people who do not have insurance or are underinsured, because it is even harder for them.”
Moraine counselors see the gap and do their best to try to close it on campus.
“Mental Illness will stay under wraps, or some people will accumulate and blow up,” said Sara Levi, a part-time counselor at Moraine Valley. “Everybody deserves to be seen, heard, and understood, and that is when we can do our best work as friends and students.”
The problem goes deeper than supply and demand. In the case of Erik Severson, he sought help and was given medication, and his illness was downplayed by health professionals, according to his mother.
As Theresa Severson tells it, at one point, she had taken Erik to the emergency room at a hospital near his home. The nurse there did not take care of Erik’s needs, saying, “We actually have people who have real problems.” Psychologists would rush through appointments with Erik because they were trying to get in as many patients as possible.
“I found the psychologist would throw medication at Erik a lot of times,” she said. “It was trial and error, and I understand that is the nature of the disease itself. I don’t feel that as an industry, they are spending the time to really do the monitoring and the conversations that are needed with the patient to really figure out what is the course of treatment.”
In Erik’s memory, to help other young people find the help they need, Theresa Severson raises money to help fund Project Healthy Minds, a nonprofit organization that brings together business, healthcare, entertainment and tech leaders to address the mental health crisis.
The Erik Power Severson Memorial 5K will take place May 21 in Warrenville. Funds raised will go directly to help fund the Guide for Healthy Minds, which the organization calls “a new tool to help you navigate your mental health journey. No hopeless scrolling. No complicated jargon. Just the help you need, when you need it.”
“Erik wanted to help others who struggle with the same challenges as him,” Theresa says. “We are happy to support this cause in his memory.”
Despite the gap, help is available
Moraine Valley counselors want students to know that they are very willing to see new clients. Students can go to the counseling center upstairs in the S building. Counselors are available Monday – Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesday – Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. To connect with a Counselor, please send an email from your student email in MVConnect to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also call (708) 974-5722 and leave a message.
In the case of an on-campus emergency, the Moraine Valley Police can be reached by calling (708)-974-5555.
Students also may visit the college’s ULifeline, an online mental health resource for students, to seek information for themselves or friends, or get immediate help.
Project Healthy Minds is a non-profit that was started by a group of students from the University of Michigan to remove the stigma associated with mental health issues and provide resources to put in a one-stop-shop.
The Living Room, mental health facilities for people who go through the same tough times: Mental Health Emergency Peer Support | Pillars Community Health
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.