A different format for counseling
This semester, the Counseling Center will be providing individual and group therapy via phone and the video conferencing platform WebEx.
Given the circumstances, this change in modality presents several pressing obstacles. One of the Center’s biggest concerns is whether or not students have a safe, private space in their homes to talk to a therapist. In some families or cultures, mental health remains a stigma and students might not want their families to know they are reaching out in fear of being seen as “weak,” Gragg explained. To help students in this situation, the Center will be brainstorming to help find ways they can securely talk.
Unfortunately, because there are no federal provisions that allow counselors to practice teletherapy across state lines, students living outside of California do not have access to individual or group therapy through these platforms, Gragg regrettably notes.
In place of therapy, Gragg suggests students instead seek consultations, where the Center will listen to any challenges (similar to a therapy session) and help them find resources nearby. The center will talk with students over multiple sessions, if necessary, until they are connected to an appropriate resource.
Despite these challenges, Gragg is positive that there are still several ways in which the change will make it easier for students to seek therapy. One key difference is the time saved, especially for commuter students who would previously have to travel between home and campus. Gragg also refers to students’ familiarity with video-conferencing platforms such as FaceTime as another facilitator in the transition.
Expressing his optimism for teletherapy, Gragg said that “even if we had [therapy sessions] in person right now, it would be with masks and ten feet away [from each other], which isn’t the best counseling set-up. So I think [the transition to online] is working, we’re figuring it out.”
“It’s a new format in doing this, but in the long run, it’s still very effective to have someone there to support you, even if they’re not five feet away. You can still feel the empathy of that therapist and get the support. The feedback so far has been very positive from students that are seeking support.”
In addition, he believes access to the Counseling Center is going to be quicker and easier than previous years, citing the current lack of a waitlist. In the past, students have had to wait up to four weeks to get an appointment, which was in part due to students’ availability, but also because of the high demand for counseling.
It is often first-year students and international students who need support in adapting to college life and dealing with issues such as long-distance relationships, being away from family, and acclimating to a new schedule. This doesn’t seem to be the case at this point in the semester, Gragg notes.
“[In previous years,] there’s so many things that are happening in that adjustment that tend to escalate their mental health, anxiety, depression. … Those factors are not happening as much right now because most people are staying at home. That can be a stressful environment, but it’s not a huge change like all of a sudden something happens,” he speculates.
This is why the Center is not as worried about meeting demand as before, even though one full-time position has been frozen due to budget constraints from the university, “which was impacted significantly due to not having students on campus due to COVID-19,” according to Gragg.
However, he does acknowledge that this might change as the semester progresses and midterms come. Stressors will intensify, especially as students experience “digital depletion”—the exhaustion of being in front of a screen constantly.
Another change of policy from previous years is the session limit for individual therapy, which used to be 12 per year and contributed to bloating the waitlist due to people wanting to get their money’s worth. This has now been eliminated altogether, and students can get their appropriate number of sessions only as needed and quickly.
“The other thing that has happened in the past too is, unfortunately, people who wait tend to get worse. So they tend to be more depressed or things can escalate. And then when we find out about that, we’ll get them in more urgently because there is a crisis situation,” Gragg explained.
What is limited, however, is the number of Single Sessions. Single Sessions Therapy are one-time meetings meant to help students deal with a particular short-term problem and would be impractical if waited upon for several weeks.
Students get two Single Sessions per semester, and the therapist assigned might be different each time. Gragg advises students who need more than two sessions per semester to look into “short-term or long-term individual therapy with one therapist.”
Advice for students
Gragg describes some of the difficulties students are facing right now. With seniors worrying about graduation, athletes not being able to compete, music, theater, and other hands-on majors having a different learning experience, people have replaced their normal routines with perpetual online meetings. Other unique stressors include financial hardships, housing, food insecurity, grief, and loss.
“There’re so many factors right now, you have the political environment in the US, you have the BLM movement … the news can be very stressful. Watching people get shot can be very traumatic.”
And yet the key difference is that the normal coping mechanisms, such as meeting friends, are not available given the state of the pandemic, which makes the process of taking care of yourself even more difficult.
“But we encourage you to focus on what you can control. So try to think about what you [can] shift for yourself, reaching out for support. If you’re seeing any of those signs: not motivated as much, sleeping more, eating more, or suicidal thoughts, we have the 24/7 crisis line for folks that are in that state of mind. We wanna make sure they’re reaching out.” The number is 909-748-8960.
Reaching out early is often the best means of preventing a mental crisis. Gragg encourages students who are struggling, or noticing a friend struggling, to get in touch with the Counseling Center.
“To be able to talk about anything that they want, and sometimes things they’ve never told anybody else, can be really freeing and helpful. And having someone to guide them in some ways to be able to manage whatever they’re going through can just really make a huge difference.”
Gragg emphasizes that services at the Counseling Center are free, confidential, and separate from students’ academic records. Comprising nine staff in total—two licensed therapists, one part-time therapist, five clinical interns, and one administrative assistant—Gragg assures students the ability to get the help they need.
“They can choose the gender of the therapist, or they can request a therapist of color as well so they can feel more comfortable with that person,” Gragg said.
Although the Counseling Center can only provide short term therapy, this year it will also collaborate with the Christian Counseling Services (CCS) to provide long term therapy. Students can pay with their insurance, which typically costs $20-$40 per session, or on a sliding scale, which is a paying mechanism based on their income.
Despite the name, Gragg assures that the service offers many non-faith-based therapists to students of all cultures and religions as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Furthermore, the university is expected to work closely with them to ensure inclusivity.
The Center will also be working with the Office of Community Standards and Wellbeing to promote mental health, physical health support, awareness, and education.
Students can also join “skill-oriented learning” groups that teach skills such as meditation and mindfulness. There are also groups centered around certain themes, such as BIPOC, transgender and gender questioning, LGBTQIA+ support, or adjusting to the pandemic and college life.
“[In the groups] people talk about their feelings and what’s happening and getting support from each other and normalizing what they’re going through. … We might [create] other groups too if there are needs,” Gragg said.
In the case of emergencies, the crisis intervention line is available 24/7 for urgent appointments every day, regardless of location, at 909-748-8960.
“The suicide prevention, by calling and reaching out to the crisis line, it saves lives. This is very important. We don’t want to lose anybody. And having that 24/7 access to licensed therapists on the phone could make the difference. And we follow up with those students as well, to make sure they’re getting the support they need.”
“We want to make sure people know we’re there. There are a lot of services that aren’t as available right now, but we still are.”