Some people view a new calendar year as a fresh start, but it also can add a significant amount of stress and anxiety for many. New Year’s resolutions are often unrealistic, setting people up to fail. Students continue to grapple with remote learning, all the distractions of home and separation from their peers.
It’s not just students who are feeling the strain of the current times. “At the national level, we’re really facing a national mental health crisis because of COVID,” says Susan K. Salem, PhD, director of Counseling and Psychological Services. “The pandemic has created multiple stresses for people, so there’s lots of fallout from that. Humans hate uncertainty, so these times are overwhelming for a lot of people. But the one good thing about COVID is that there’s more conversation about taking care of one’s mental health.”
Salem encourages students to take advantage of the services provided by CPS. Traditional full-time undergraduates, ADN, ABSN and DPT students may receive up to 10 counseling sessions per academic year and all sessions are confidential. A common misconception is that such services are only for people with mental health “issues,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, therapists can be a sounding board with no hidden agenda except to help people move past barriers in their environment or they’ve created for themselves.
“Students don’t have to feel ‘crazy’ to come here,” Salem says, “They just have to feel ‘stuck.’ They don’t know which option to choose or they don’t like where they’re at, and they don’t know who to talk to. We help provide an objective viewpoint and help students see that there are other options other than the tunnel vision they often find themselves in. We want to help them learn coping skills and see things from a broader perspective.”
The CPS staff consists of two licensed psychologists, Salem and Kendra Nickerson, PhD, four postdoctoral fellows working under supervision as they accumulate the hours needed for licensing, a part-time psychiatric nurse practitioner and an office manager.
As with virtually every aspect of life, CPS needed to adapt to changes created by the pandemic. The staff found that students were having a hard time finding a private space at home for counseling sessions; many also didn’t want their families knowing they were receiving counseling. And because the pandemic makes it unsafe for the staff to counsel people in an enclosed space for an hour, CPS has set up a tent at Chalon in lot A2 outside their offices. Students can make a reservation, and when they show up they are given a laptop which they use to Zoom with a therapist. At the present time, staff are working remotely so the tent is not available; however, when they are back working on campus, the Zoom tent will be up.
* Individual therapy and counseling 310.954.4114 (Chalon); 213.477.2668 (Doheny)
* Urgent, same-day crisis counseling (30 minute appointment)
* 24/7 crisis line (run by ProtoCall in conjunction with the CPS team): 310.954.4CPS (277)
* Website offers information on hotlines for help with a variety of issues including alcoholism, eating disorders, and suicide prevention. There is also a listing of Los Angeles-based clinics by geographic area for students who need additional support. Many are low-cost and accept insurance, including Medi-Cal.
For those students who need more than 10 sessions per academic year, “Los Angeles is full of psychologists,” Salem says with a laugh. “However, students studying remotely in more rural areas have fewer options.”
Also, licensing rules don’t allow the CPS team to provide services to students studying remotely outside California, although Salem belongs to a national director’s conference and the American Psychological Association, both of which are lobbying the government to relax those restrictions because of COVID.
Students who need referrals outside the Los Angeles area should check Psychology Today’s website for listings by state or major city. Zocdoc.com is an option for those needing help from psychiatrists with their medications; this site will show visitors what appointment times are available.
The Hidden Effects of COVID
Just because a person isn’t physically ill from COVID doesn’t mean they have not been affected by it. “Not being in the social network students normally experience in college often leads to a decrease in social support,” says Salem, “which is almost as important to your health as having low cholesterol.” She cited various findings, from sources such as the American Psychological Association and the American College Health Association, on the pandemic’s effects on our mental health:
* 27% of college students contemplated suicide within the past year, an increase from an average that hovers around 9%
* 44% of people of color report discrimination as a significant source of stress.
* 67% of college students feel like planning their future is “impossible”
* 70% of college students and Gen Z — 18 to 23 year olds — feel that their futures are very uncertain and report symptoms of depression
* 78% of adults reported that the pandemic is a significant source of stress
* 87% of college students and Gen Zs reported feeling academic stress. They have the highest levels of stress of any generation
Anxiety and depression are definitely increasing among Mount students, as well as academic stress. “A lot of students are having trouble finding good spaces to study — their bedroom might be in the living room — and some don’t have access to a computer regularly,” says Salem. “Some are even doing schoolwork on their phone. We also find that they’re taking care of their younger siblings a lot, so that’s extra pressure. And a lot of our students don’t come with a lot of resources and their parents are losing their jobs because of COVID. That’s causing a lot of stress and extra pressure on them to do well.”
Mount students are also a bit different from the general college population in that 62% of current student clients have backgrounds involving some form of trauma, which is unusually high. Not only are many of the student clients new to therapy, those who have been victims of trauma often have never told anyone about their experience. The first step in all cases is to build trust.
Then the CPS staff teaches students how to become more resilient. “They need to look at things more realistically and learn that not everything is a catastrophe,” says Salem. “I hear a lot of, ‘If I get an F on this test, I’m going to flunk out of school and my parents are going to hate me and throw me out of the house.’ They go from A to Z in five seconds, so we try to help people combat that way of thinking.
“Our stats and our measurements show that our students clients become less depressed, less anxious and especially less suicidal. We also have a nurse practitioner who comes a couple times a month for medication evaluations, and this has really been lifesaving for many of our students. Some students have been coping with depression or anxiety since middle school or high school, so it’s important if there’s a biological component to help students with that.”
Teletherapy Versus In-person Sessions
Salem believes that teletherapy is here to stay, even when we finally get rid of COVID. Although in-person therapy will remain the gold standard, teletherapy is a convenient alternative for students and their busy schedules.
She also believes that teletherapy can give people who are afraid of the process more control. “It might be a little easier for people with social anxiety” she says. “But what I don’t like about it is that I never get true eye contact. There’s something to be said for looking somebody in the eye and giving them some feedback that just ‘hits,’ and you can see it in their face. I miss that. But if virtual appointments make therapy more accessible to more people, that’s always helpful.”
Salem enjoys helping the students and empowering them. “College is often a time where people can blossom,” she says. “A lot of the students come in kind of quiet and meek, then they find their voice. It’s really nice to see them flourish and grow. The students are really appreciative and thankful. They respond well to therapy, overall. It sometimes opens up a whole new world for them. They’re academically intelligent — often they just need to learn a bit more emotional intelligence.
“I love the Mount. I tell people that I went to college and I never left.”