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At SPU’s Student Counseling Center, I Took the First Step Toward Healing

By Melissa Steffan ’12 | Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

I still carry one particular business card in my wallet, tucked behind my Starbucks cards and the frozen yogurt rewards card I use too often. The business card is in near perfect condition, somehow preserved for years, marked only by a single date.

It’s been nearly three years since that day in May 2011, and I never want to forget it. On that date, I sat down in an office at Seattle Pacific University’s Student Counseling Center and confessed my closest secret to a counselor. I had anorexia.

At the time I felt like the only person who was struggling, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nationally, between 9 and 12 percent of students seek help from their university counseling centers on average.

At SPU, according to Steven Maybell, director of the Student Counseling Center, 25 percent of students took advantage of the Center’s resources last year. The staff and graduate-level counseling interns assisted more than 800 undergraduate Seattle Pacific students, he says.

“It’s not that we have the most dysfunctional student population,” says Maybell. “It’s because students here don’t fall through the cracks. SPU students face no more troubles than college students nationwide. The difference is that they have access to the help they need.”

Yet, surrounded as I was by faculty members and friends whom I know cared for me, I thought I was alone in my struggle. I didn’t know that there were others coping poorly with stress and a rocky transition to adulthood.

The majority of students who visit the SCC are dealing with relationship problems — whether with others on campus, with their family, or even with God, Maybell says. Some SCC clients have trouble coping with the stress of college, and others — even if they have been raised as Christians — begin to question their faith, which can cause identity crises.

“It makes sense that this happens for college students because there is uncertainty and this big change of being expected to manage their own life,” he says.

The most important thing for students to know is that they’re actually not expected to do it all without help, Maybell says. SPU’s first level of support is offered by an on-campus network of faculty, staff, and student leaders. Beyond that, the Center offers free professional counseling from an all-Christian staff to all SPU undergraduate students. The Center also provides group, family, and couples counseling, and employs a counselor and dietitian who specialize in working with students with eating disorders.

Staff members attend to the most urgent cases first. “Students can walk in to the Center, and if they are in a crisis situation, we drop whatever else we are doing and see them immediately,” Maybell says.

“Immediately” means any time — even in the middle of the night. Maybell or a member of his team are on call overnight, 365 days a year, to respond to crisis situations.

“Helping to change lives? I get to do that,” Maybell says. “Connecting young adults to who they really are — created by God and in his image, versus how others have sought to shape or define them — is a beautiful thing.”

It’s also the gospel’s core. My counselor told me years ago that, for Christians, almost everything is relational. Even though I asked her to help me fix my broken relationship with food, she observed that I actually needed to fix my broken relationship with God.

Her words of truth served as the catalyst for my own desire to recover — even though I didn’t act on that desire for many more months. Three years later, I still work to choose recovery, to choose God’s freedom over hopelessness. It isn’t easy, and I’m wise enough to know now that depression and disordered eating may follow me for the rest of my life.

If that’s the case, though, I’ll keep the business card as a reminder of that May 2011 date for just as long.

Melissa SteffanMelissa Steffan, a journalist who has written for The Washington Post and Christianity Today, is the assistant editor for 1776, a startup incubator, in Washington, D.C.