College is the time in your life where you finally get to find out who you are; you learn who your friends are, what you stand for and what you want to do with your life. But for many students, college brings to light mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. According to a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association, 35% of 14,000 college students surveyed reported having symptoms consistent with at least one mental illness. With COVID-19 thrown in the mix, a new light has been cast on these issues. College campuses are having to evaluate their mental health services in a way like never before. At Virginia Tech, Cook Counseling Center has been working to make sure that these services are being offered to the best of its abilities.
Director of Cook Counseling Ellie Sturgis, Ph.D., works to oversee the entire staff of the counseling center, along with the budget, plans for service delivery and representing the center in leadership. She has been in charge of responding to COVID-19 on a mental health level for Virginia Tech students.
“We directly ask the question when people first come in, whether COVID is influencing their decision to seek help, and 34.4% of students said yes to that,” Sturgis said. “We also every year track symptoms from students, depression and anxiety and eating issues, substance abuse, a whole variety of things.”
COVID-19 may not be the main reason students are facing mental health problems this school year, but Sturgis found that the number of students with mental health symptoms is indeed slightly higher than previous years.
“As I look at the data for the first five weeks and compare it to our national average, we’re right where the national average is,” Sturgis said. “The national average is exactly where it was last year in terms of patients, but we have gone up just a little bit because before, Virginia Tech has been under the national average, and it looks like our distress level is now matching the rest of the country.”
While the number of students facing these mental health issues is higher, the utilization of Cook Counseling’s service is actually down from previous years.
“I think there are a couple of reasons for that,” Sturgis said. “One is that we don't have as many students on campus, and so there are fewer people to come in.”
Sturgis also believed that telehealth is playing a role in these low numbers.
“Using a telehealth platform has been very useful for some students who are particularly worried about stigma. No one sees them come into the office or see them leave the office. There's safety in talking from your own space,” Sturgis said. “Many students established a therapeutic relationship with a therapist back home, and they worked with telehealth, so I think a lot of people have just stayed with that particular clinician.”
This also makes a difference with out-of-state students, as licensure in Virginia does not allow therapists to practice with people outside of the state. “I think all of those together make our numbers lower actually than we thought they were going to be,” Sturgis said.
Dr. Sturgis recognized the benefits of telehealth for many students.
“Up until last March, we always thought telehealth is not a great idea. Teletherapy, we're learning that for some people, it really is a very effective platform,” Sturgis said. “I've had some of my clients say, ‘Can we, when we go back to all in person, stay with telehealth?’ So I think telehealth is going to be a part of the package from now on.”
Mental health has not only been on the minds of those at Cook Counseling. Senior multimedia journalism and political science major Katie Leeper centered her homecoming campaign around erasing the stigma surrounding mental health. She is using the slogan “Break the Silence, Save a Life,” and is focusing on an effort to raise money for Cook Counseling.
“I have personally struggled with mental health disorders and abuse issues, and I’ve met many of my friends, but also just fellow students, who have struggled as well,” Leeper said.
Leeper reported on the mental health crisis last school year as a part of her multimedia journalism major, and saw how hard these issues were hitting home to Virginia Tech. “Students have to wait three weeks or more for help, and sometimes you need the help when you need it,” Leeper said. “Especially with everything going on right now with coronavirus and the separation of your friends and your family and overall just the stress and uncertainty, I feel has brought on a lot more issues. I just want to make sure that our students, if they want help, they have the resources necessary to deal with and heal from past abuse or past mental health disorders or current disorders or abuse that they're struggling through.”
Leeper applauded the efforts of Cook Counseling during such an unprecedented time, but wants to help them to have the capabilities and funding to do more.
“I really think that Virginia Tech has a lot of great aspects that they help our students, but I feel like the mental health counseling lacks a little bit,” Leeper said. “That's not their fault, it's just that a lot of us are searching for help more than years past.”
Stugis also sees the benefits of speaking to those that you are close to. “Talking about what you're experiencing with those you're close to, journaling about those experiences can be very beneficial in and of itself,” Sturgis said. “The demand is much higher for us to engage in self care at this point in time.”
As for now, the pandemic still goes on and doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. So in the meantime, Sturgis along with the rest of Cook Counseling are continuing to evolve their services to meet the changing needs of students.
“We're trying to develop more creative ways of helping students to connect with one another. We can't just use the typical strategies that we've looked before,” Sturgis said. “I think the pandemic helps us think more creatively about what an intervention should look like.”