News, On Campus

UCS Adjusts to COVID-19, Expands Virtual Resources

With students struggling to manage the stress of college life, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston College expanded its mental health resources—which are entirely virtual this semester—in an attempt to help students experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.  

“There are some students who, just the stress of the pandemic has made existing symptoms worse for them,” Vice President for Student Health and Wellness Melinda Stoops said. “But we also have students who in general seem to be coping fairly well but still are having some anxiety or stress related to the reality that this is a hard semester.”

In addition to a new module designed to help students address their mental health, University Counseling Services (UCS) is now offering a series of identity-specific drop-in support groups alongside it’s one-on-one counseling services.

Craig Burns, director of University Counseling Services (UCS), said that stress related to the pandemic has been a significant factor for students using UCS as a resource this semester.

“A little less than a third of students will say they’re coming to an intake for individual therapy because of something directly related to COVID,” said Burns. “So clearly it’s a big factor in everybody’s life, and there’s no great surprise there. We’re all just trying to figure out how to do the best we can.”

Despite COVID-19 being a common factor among students utilizing UCS programs, Burns noted that there has not been a noticeable increase in the number of students using UCS as a resource this semester as compared to previous semesters. He did, however, say that more students have been coming through UCS in recent weeks, which could be attributed to a variety of factors.

“When we look on a closer level of trends, students were a little bit slower to come into counseling at the start of the year and that frequency is picking up a bit,” said Burns. “Probably partially just coming through midterms, that’s a stressor, but there’s also the stressor of realizing the number of infections in the [Greater Boston] community around us are ticking up.”

Burns said that UCS has worked to limit or resolve the technical difficulties that have arisen with the advent of online counseling services at UCS, but also recognizes that there will be some things that they will be unable to do in the same way as before.  

“Certainly with any new system and service there are bumps in the road,” Burns said. “We do believe and have largely had feedback that these adjustments and adaptations have been successful, but we have had some technical issues in some cases, and of course there are some experiential differences in meeting through video sessions as opposed to traditional in person therapy.”

Burns outlined UCS’ support groups, which it formed this semester to be more identity-specific. These include a group for international students struggling with travel restrictions and other worries, a group for BIPOC students on campus, and a group for students of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“We’ve added in a whole separate layer of trying to engage students through what are either loose drop-in group meetings or skill-based groups,” said Burns. “Those are specifically designed to try to help provide some chance for coming together, for addressing stresses related to COVID, around loneliness, isolation, and uncertainty.” 

One of the biggest changes this year is the new module on mental well-being, which is similar to BC’s other online modules that are designed to teach students about diversity, alcohol use, and sexual assault prevention.

The module includes tools that students can access to help address problems they may be facing with their own mental health, and it spreads awareness of the resources and programs the University provides.

Though the Mental Well-Being for Students module was originally only assigned to incoming freshmen and transfer students over the summer as part of the pre-entrance curriculum students must complete before arriving at BC, UCS later made it optional for sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

The module was planned before the University’s closure in March, but Stoops said that the mental health challenges that the pandemic poses made the module even more relevant and important this semester.

“That’s one of the reasons why normally we just roll [modules] out for first year students and new transfers, but a few weeks ago I sent it out to the rest of the students—not that it’s required for anyone else—but we thought some of the tools in the modules anyone could use and so why limit to first year students?,” Stoops said.

Stoops said that she hopes the modules can destigmatize mental health issues and help students to feel more comfortable talking about mental health with their friends and peers.

The modules provide strategies for students dealing with lower-level stress issues as well as students who don’t want to reach out for on-campus resources but are looking for coping mechanisms to help deal with stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression.

“We all have times where we feel stressed and anxious, and especially with students thinking of just the stress of academics and then the stress of this semester I think we can all benefit from strategies that help us calm down, relax, and maybe think differently about our problems,” Stoops said. 

A mental health component was added to the curriculum in response to rising mental health issues among college students nationwide, Stoops said, and BC considered it important to emphasize emotional well-being in the way it does with its alcohol, sexual assault, and diversity modules.

The University chose EverFi, a program provider, due to its inclusion not only of mental health issues, but also of practical strategies for students to deal with and think about these issues, Stoops said.

In addition to the new mental health module, Stoops emphasized other resources for students to discuss issues related to mental health.

UCS provides individual counseling services and support in addition to various support groups. In response to the pandemic, UCS implemented new support groups which students can attend virtually to address feelings of isolation and anxiety that the pandemic has created for many people.

This semester, UCS is not seeing students in person, since therapy with masks would be less effective and would put individuals at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Burns said.

“There is strong professional guidance against doing this at this time for the elevated risk with COVID in small spaces in combination with the significant limitations on effectively conducting therapy with masks,” Burns said. “While video sessions are not perfect, there is a great deal of evidence that therapy delivered through video telehealth platforms can be as effective.”  

Burns said that if students are unable to connect through a video telehealth session, UCS can meet with them through a phone session or offer them a variety of other services.  

“We provide individual counseling, a broad range of ongoing group therapies, skills groups, and drop in support groups, as well as web-based modules through WellTrack to help students address mild to moderate depressive symptoms, anxiety, or stress,” Burns said.  

Outside of UCS, the University offers other services such as Lean On Me, the student-run mental health text line, Campus Ministry, the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center (BAIC), Pride Peers, and the Women’s Center.

Stoops said she encourages students to consider their individual needs and explore the options available beyond just counseling services.

“Think of all the different resources on campus—and many of them do have existing support options for students—which I think is fabulous, because there’s hopefully something for everyone, depending on where you’re looking,” Stoops said.

Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor

November 16, 2020