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As students head back to college, virtually or in person, counseling centers hope to provide mental health support

Lindsey Echausse, 21, who graduated from Iona College in May, had seen a therapist through the school's counseling center.
Lindsey Echausse, 21, who graduated from Iona College in May, had seen a therapist through the school's counseling center. (Lester Millman)

T.J. Annerino, 21, of Mobile, Ala., has some advice for students headed back to college either virtually or in-person: “Drop into your school’s virtual or on-campus counseling center. It’s a way to center yourself in these odd times.”

Annerino, an incoming senior at Auburn University, was already engaged with the center for some anxiety she felt during her junior year. Although she and her therapist had ended the sessions “at a good place,” Annerino, who rode out the first few weeks of the outbreak at home with her family, sought out the center’s resources after returning to campus in April.

“From what was offered, I chose a free trial of a meditation app and online videos about coping with depression and anxiety,” Annerino said. “They helped a lot.”

As colleges begin on-campus and virtual returns by students, counseling center directors hope “even students not previously engaged with the centers will drop by, tune in, check out websites or at least open email messages of support and suggestions the centers will be sending out to everyone,” said Micky M. Sharma, director of the Office of Student Life Counseling and Consultation Service at Ohio State University in Columbus.

“Just about all four-year colleges and many community colleges have on-campus counseling centers that offer services, including individual and group counseling, medication prescribing, and campuswide mental health wellness programming such as suicide prevention and substance abuse prevention, counseling and recovery programming,” said Barry Schreier, director of the University Counseling Service at the University of Iowa and a spokesman for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

“Providing support during a pandemic is unchartered territory, but the unexpected is nothing new for college counseling centers who learn to lean into the need,” he said.

Victor Schwartz, who was medical director of counseling at New York University — blocks from the World Trade Center — on Sept. 11, 2001, agrees that centers are primed to hit the ground running. Now medical director of the Jed Foundation, a national suicide prevention program for young adults, Schwartz said counseling centers have only increased their nimbleness, staff and understanding of college students in the past decade or so.

“We know now that some mental health disorders only first emerge during the ages a student would be in college and the stigma, for some, of reaching out for mental health counseling has decreased,” he said.

Schwartz said counseling staff see the “whole range of mental health concerns at their centers,” notably anxiety, depression and trouble adjusting to academic or social life at school. The growth of counseling centers in the past few years puts them in a strong position “to rejigger as needed in the next few months as we add this weird virus into the mix of student mental health concerns,” he said.

Therapy is one of the key services counseling centers offer. In the spring, as many health services switched to telemedicine, so did the ones offered by counseling centers. To the surprise of counseling directors, therapists and students often seamlessly switched to virtual visits.

Elizabeth Plummer, counseling director at Rice University in Houston, said even students who were on campus often preferred a teletherapy option to being in a room where both the student and the therapist were masked. She said the virtual visits will continue to be widely offered, even for on-campus students.

Plummer said that although they did not see a rise in demand for care in the spring, they are anticipating an increase in the fall semester as “students are more emotionally fatigued from the weight of how long we have all been dealing with the fallout of covid[-19], coupled with the current political environment.”

One logjam for telehealth counseling is that if students leave college for another state, licensing laws don’t always permit out-of-state health visits. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Pennsylvania State University maintains a continually updated website where therapists and students can check the law in their states.

Many centers also are changing how fast students can see a counselor, said Ben Locke, director of CCMH. Previously, wait times could be a week or more if a student was not having an emergency, but now, colleges recognize the need for students to be able to talk or access resources quickly, he said.

Among the new initiatives colleges are employing:

●Sharma, counseling center director at OSU, has moved in-person drop-in chat sessions to Zoom and increased their frequency — and has seen sign-ups soar.

●Yale University, seeing an increase in counseling center interest, has started “walk-in intake hours” and reduced wait times by streamlining the appointment process.

●Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland, started a chat line at the counseling and guidance center that is answered by a counselor five days a week who can immediately help with resources such as from job assistance to suicide prevention.

●Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., has created a virtual “walk-in” counseling program, and has developed interactive activities to help with meaningful discussions with students about their experiences during the pandemic.

Annerino is a member of Active Minds — a national group that supports mental health awareness and education for high school and college students. She joined after beginning therapy on campus.

Active Minds recently released recommendations on ways that colleges and universities can prioritize mental health on campus during the pandemic — including investment and support for telehealth, increased student involvement and integration of mental health into curriculums.

Anthony Rostain, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years,” said he hopes parents will encourage their college-age children to access counseling center resources online or on campus “as a critical way of handling the strange semesters ahead.”

Lindsey Echausse, 21, who graduated from Iona College in May, had seen a therapist through the counseling center in the semester before the pandemic broke out. In the spring, as virus cases climbed in New York, she tapped into the center’s website and found resources she said she doesn’t think she would have found on her own.

“I’m so grateful to the staff member who found the link to ‘yoga for anxiety’ and posted it to the counseling center’s Instagram account,” Echausse said.

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