On Campus and All Stressed Out
The pandemic has not only increased the rate of depression among college students, but has also put a strain on collegiate counseling centers. How are Pittsburgh area colleges and universities responding?
Editor’s note: Some last names have been withheld to protect the privacy of the students interviewed.
Things were looking up for Lauren Frank at the beginning of 2020.
The Pitt senior had been visiting the Counseling Center at the University of Pittsburgh for three years and had been assigned a team made up of a nutritionist, a doctor and a therapist to see her on a regular basis.
Then, COVID-19 hit. Pitt went virtual — Counseling Center included — and the transition wasn’t easy for Frank.
“I couldn’t [physically] see anyone. The calls were kind of sporadic. You didn’t really know when you would be talking to someone next, because they were kind of at the whim of the university and when the university could say that the Health Center could call people. So it was very challenging on both sides,” says Frank, now a first-year graduate student studying social work at Pitt.
According to a July 2020 survey of 18,000 college students by the Healthy Minds Network in collaboration with the American College Health Association, 60 percent of students say the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care. Likewise, the survey found the rate of depression among college students has increased since the start of the pandemic, rising from 36 percent in fall 2019 to 41 percent in spring 2020.
As local college students return to campus or begin remote classes, collegiate counseling centers — which often serve as a training facility for graduate students — are facing a potential increase in demand from students who, in addition to routine stress from college life, now face stress from an international pandemic.
Sharise Nance, co-founder of HandinHand Counseling Services and founder of Vitamin C Healing, can empathize with students who have a difficult time navigating college counseling services. She was once in their shoes.
“When I was in undergrad, I did have an experience with a [college] counseling center. It wasn’t a good experience with a therapist, and I think that was part of what led me to do this work,” she says.
According to Nance, COVID-19 has given students a “perfect storm” for anxiety and depression — a storm that college counseling centers might not be ready for.
“I think having a counseling center that is prepared for this is imperative because you’re going to get the ‘normal’ — for lack of a better term — college students who come in and need to unpack all of the stressors that come along with being a college student. And now you’re going to get that along with the stress of COVID-19 and systemic racism being brought to the surface on a more global scale,” she says.
Nance says this stress manifests itself in many ways. “This is going to impact concentration; it’s going to impact memory; it’s going to impact learning; it’s going to impact appetite, sleep, mood, all of those things,” she says.
“It’s hard for people to reach out for help. And then when they finally do, it’s like, ‘Oh, we have a waiting list, we have to refer you out’. So now I have to call around again. And if everybody has a waiting list, eventually if you call two or three times, you’re just going to get discouraged and people don’t get help.”
Local colleges have faced criticism in the past for the way their counseling centers are run. In 2017, the University of Pittsburgh’s Counseling Center did not have a full-time psychiatrist. Its director at the time, Edward Michaels, was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography. Although Michaels did not see clients, he did have the power to approve additional counseling services for students, according to an article by The Pitt News. It took 19 months before Jay Darr, the Counseling Center’s current director, was appointed in Michaels’ role.
At Chatham University, students and alumni said campus counseling services were not equipped to meet their needs and felt there were consequences for divulging mental health concerns, according to a 2017 article by PublicSource.
At Duquesne University, when Marquis Jaylen Brown, a Duquesne student, died in October 2018, the counseling center was unable to handle the influx of students affected by his death. “The Counseling Center was flooded (with demand) and they didn’t really do anything about it, like make an effort to hire more therapists,” Abby*, a physics major at Duquesne, says.
The university says the counseling center collaborated with Duquesne’s Psychology Clinic to increase availability to students and even contracted an outside agency to provide additional support for students of color, specifically Black students, according to Emily Stock, Duquesne media relations specialist.
Today, counseling centers at universities and colleges are making an effort to meet demand by providing a mixture of teletherapy and on-campus sessions that follow CDC guidelines for social distancing, expanding the use of group sessions, and providing more outreach and preventative programming.
Point Park University, Robert Morris University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania are keeping their current staffing levels, but say they are equipped to handle a rise in students using their respective counseling centers.
Carlow University has expanded its counseling center staff in the past eight months and also is providing virtual-only therapy, says Dr. Angela Harrington, executive director of Health and Counseling Services at Carlow. “I really think it’s actually increased our access, and it’s also allowed us to maintain as much of that therapeutic environment as we can,” she says.
According to Kurt Kumler, director of the University Counseling Center at Point Park University, the university — along with Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne, Robert Morris and Pitt — are part of the JED Campus Program, a four-year program through the JED Foundation designed to guide schools through a collaborative process of comprehensive systems, program and policy development to build upon existing student mental health, substance use and suicide prevention efforts.
“That saves us from reinventing the wheel and we get really good information about best practices and emerging trends,” he says.
Kumler — previously director of the counseling center at Carnegie Mellon before arriving at Point Park 2 years ago — says when counseling centers face a demand that exceeds their capabilities, there are three main strategies for lowering it: reduce the frequency of meeting, create a session limit and establish a waitlist. However, he says these are not perfect solutions.
“I don’t know that those are the best. There’s kind of a balancing act of trying to figure out the best way to make it work as best you can,” he says.
According to Dr. Ian Edwards, assistant vice president for student wellbeing at Duquesne, the university has switched to individual and group virtual counseling, offering support groups for Black and international students. On-campus counseling services are available to students who are not able to find a quiet space by themselves for a virtual session.
“Through our group offerings and current system, we are hopeful that we will be able to respond to the anticipated demand for services,” Edwards says in an email. “Our system allows for a community-wide response to the promotion of wellbeing, using a biopsychosocial-spiritual model. Thus, in working collaboratively with other departments within the university, the care of our students, staff and faculty becomes a creative expression of mutual empathy, concern and compassion.”
Chatham is tripling the number of trainees and introducing a flexible care model. Developed by Dr. Will Meek at Brown University, the model provides same-day access to care for as many students as possible, providing concise counseling sessions — usually 25 to 30 minutes long — offering clinically meaningful help at the first session and providing follow-up options.
Dr. Jennifer Morse, professor of counseling psychology and executive director of counseling and wellness at Chatham, hopes that this new model will give students easier access to the center’s services. Students can still schedule a traditional 45-minute session or can get connected with other resources on campus.
“The idea is that after a first concise appointment, a student can say, ‘This is helpful. I’m going to run with this for a little bit. I’m going to come back in the next time I get worried by this or worried by something else, thanks so much,’ and they might not come in for another 30 days or 10 days or 21 days, because that’s what fits them,” she says “Versus another student who says, ‘Yeah, this is still really bothering me. I’m going to try to come in next week,’ or you can even schedule a concise appointment later that week.”
By providing more trainees, Morse says that Chatham is able to provide more preventative programming, like stress management.
“It’ll be my job to be paying attention to what students seem to like, what they’re engaging in, what they want to see more of, and to continue to hold on to and build out the things that students really seem to be engaging in and enjoying and adapting and adjusting anything that they’re not participating in, or adapting to any other needs,” she says.
Morse says much has changed since 2017.
“We’ve had changes in the structure between Student Affairs and Counseling, changes in the policy on self-harm, which now focuses on working with a student to develop a plan to support them, and changes … such as more proactive and preventive wellness offerings both in terms of programming but also individual counseling services,” she says.
According to Jay Darr, director of the Counseling Center at the University of Pittsburgh, the center now has the flexibility to handle increased demand since implementing a personalized care model in February 2019, which helps connect students to a wide range of services and resources, and increases overall wellness and resilience.
“As a result, for the first time in over four years, there has not been a waitlist for center services since late March 2019,” he says.
Despite the challenges, there is hope for college students when it comes to traversing mental health services on campus as school begins again. Frank and Abby have consistently seen someone at their respective college counseling centers.
However, Abby says local colleges still have a long way to go.
“I feel like I’ve talked to way more people who haven’t been able to get the care that they need and want than people who have been successful,” she says.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if you have been experiencing some of the following signs and symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, you may be suffering from depression:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
For more information, visit nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml.