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Remembering (and Critiquing) Early Counseling Services at Southwestern

The first versions of Counseling Services reinforced ablelist conceptions of what a "normal" Southwestern student was.

The earliest services for “personal counseling” on campus sought to destigmatize therapy services for the student body. In so doing, though, they reinforced ableist assumptions that Southwestern students were neurotypical and able-bodied.

Therapy services for students began at Southwestern University in 1975 as “Personal Counseling.” Personal counseling was a subcategory of other forms of counseling, such as career and academic counseling, and was mostly handled by the Student Development staff. That was until the first Director of Counseling Services, Dr. Jane Morgan Bost, arrived on campus in 1984. Upon her arrival, Dr. Bost made a great effort in destigmatizing therapy, and as a result on-campus therapy services expanded. While this was monumental for acknowledging mental health at the time, looking back at this now from the perspective of the present, we can see that the therapy services offered were exclusionary to neurodiverse students.

Early on-campus therapy reinforced a normative conception of the student body through its advertisement and services. Dr. Jane Morgan Bost, the first Director of Counseling Services, established that therapy services, including individual and group therapy, were intended for “normal” students. Her focus on normalcy characterizes on-campus therapy as a much needed space for mental health for all students, but in the process, a line was drawn between what is considered “normal” and “not normal.”

It’s likely that the purpose of the word “normal” here was to destigmatize therapy. For example, Dr. Bost creates an image of an ordinary student through an analogy in an interview:

“A clearly flowing stream is a beautiful sight,” Dr. Jane Bost tells The Megaphone (November 9th, 1984). “At times, though, rocks or sticks or other debris tend to block the stream and cause water to slow down, pool up and stagnate. It is a normal stream, but it needs help getting ‘unstuck’. Normal developmental problems can result in a person feeling ‘stuck’. Counseling can help a person remove the barriers and restore a flow of living.”

This quote appeals to students by characterizing them as “ordinary students,” with “ordinary problems,” that need “ordinary solutions.” A student in this instance is presumed to only require short-term counseling (if any), and then will resume their otherwise normal “flow of living.” By using this kind of generalized language, this analogy sets up the expectation that a person can be “fixed” through therapy. Additionally, it minimizes the range of therapies into a singular generalized form that for the most part serves a small portion of patients.

Dr. Bost frequently wrote in The Megaphone herself, introducing the column “Living Well at SU.” Along with Jan Pickett (on-campus nurse) and Dr. Fred Dooley (Director of Learning Assistance), Jane Bost provided guidance to students about health, wellness, and interpersonal skill development. Additionally, “Living Well at SU'' was used to promote therapy services on campus. In one article (September 1st, 1988), Dr. Bost writes, “It is generally a relief to these courageous students who seek help to know they aren’t ‘weird’ and, in fact, these feelings are ‘normal.’” As therapy simultaneously was becoming more prevalent in the culture and more accessible at Southwestern in the 1980s, this statement gets two ideas across: counseling is a regular resource, and many students seek help. This quote does set up the idea of an ordinary student, but only to make further efforts to destigmatize therapy. In fact, the quote is only exclusionary when considering the fact that not every student fits under this idea of “normal.”

What is considered a “normal” student anyway, according to Dr. Jane Bost’s articles? Dr. Jane Bost answers this question in her column a couple of times. In one article (September 22nd, 1988), Dr. Bost states that being normal is “being mentally OK” and suggests having a good mental fitness. While it is well intentioned, mental health and mental fitness aren’t inherently correlated with each other. In fact, many practices of maintaining mental fitness are simply unachievable depending on a person’s ability, which is why more contemporary approaches to psychotherapy start with a more diverse definition of mental health.

Dr. Bost follows these articles with a questionnaire, so students can ask themselves whether they have high mental fitness (and thus qualify as “normal”). “The College Student Health Guide” provides questions such as, “Do you have the energy to complete the day?” and “Are you able to think clearly, complete your homework efficiently, and communicate in a clear, open way?” Such questions would automatically exclude including neurodivergence in any conception of normalcy.

The focus on normalcy in Dr. Bost’s qualifications for treatment on campus inherently excludes students with mental illnesses. Indeed, according to the 1985-1986 Student Handbook, students who had “medical, psychiatric, or more serious mental disorders” were referred to off-campus resources. There had been some resources provided that were specific to mental disorders, such as the bulimia support groups through the late 1980’s. However, the university did not begin counseling services with neurodivergent/mental disorder support in mind. In fact, there had been little acknowledgement of neurodiverse students up until 1997 with the first ADD support group. While the first steps for therapy services began in the 1970’s, the steps toward including neurodivergent students came decades later.

Images

A snippet of the column “Living Well at SU” that was hosted by Dr. Jane Bost, Dr. Jan Pickett, and Dr. Fred Dooley in the late 1980’s. Source: Megaphone, September 1, 1988 Creator: Jane Bost Date: 1988
Dr. Jane Bost Source: Sou'wester Yearbook 1986 Creator: Sou'wester Yearbook Date: 1986

Location

Metadata

Antonio Mendiola ’26, “Remembering (and Critiquing) Early Counseling Services at Southwestern,” Placing Memory, accessed July 25, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/93.