Coronavirus and counseling: how the pandemic has left one of the College’s most crucial resources vulnerable
November 20, 2020
Editor’s Note 11/20/20 at 10:42 a.m.: This article has been updated for accuracy.
In a period of stress and uncertainty that has contributed to increasing mental health issues in college-aged adults, Bowdoin’s mental health care, which students can access without paying any extra in tuition and fees, is as important as ever. In our current ever-changing environment, Counseling Services must adapt its most crucial resources to best address its students’ developing needs.
“I just think that there’s way too much responsibility put on way too small a group of people at the Counseling Center,” Sarah Byars-Waller ’22 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I think that has a lot to do with why Bowdoin students aren’t having the best experiences.”
As students have been sent away from campus and across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Counseling Services faces additional challenges. Many states have restrictions on offering medical treatment across state lines.
“For students in states where our practice is either prohibited or limited, we are taking a case-by-case approach and either offering time-limited services or offering the non-counseling services … as well as holding consultation meetings to help with the search process for local providers and resources,” Interim Director of Counseling and Wellness Services Roland Mendiola wrote in an email to the Orient.
Students who are currently taking a personal leave of absence from the College do not have access to Bowdoin counseling services. For Lyle Altschul ’23, who is currently on leave and recently moved, finding a therapist and psychiatrist outside of Bowdoin was difficult.
“[Counseling Services] cut me off as soon as I took a leave [and told me I] had to find someone else to prescribe my medication,” Altschul said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “There was a long period of time, like six months, where I just couldn’t get a therapist and a month where I was like, how am I going to get my meds that I need to survive?”
This semester, the number of psychiatric appointments at Counseling Services doubled, according to Mendiola.
While counselors provide guidance, psychiatric practitioners can prescribe medication. Though the number of students using counseling services this semester is consistent with the approximately one-third of the student body—approximately 660 students—that used these services last academic year, demand for psychiatric services at Bowdoin has dramatically increased since 2015, when the Orient reported approximately 450 students were seen by a counselor.
To meet some of this increase in demand, Counseling Services welcomed Tamsen Lyon, a full-time psychiatric nurse practitioner, to their staff this fall.
“Fortunately, with the recent hire of a full-time psychiatric nurse practitioner, this heightened demand has been thoroughly manageable,” Mendiola wrote in an email to the Orient.
In the eyes of some students, this addition was long overdue.
“I think the fact that we just started having full-time psychiatrists on deck is kind of scary,” Byars-Waller said.
According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey from June, young adults reported “having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.” Among primarily college-aged respondents, adults 18-24 years old, 74.9 percent reported experiencing at least one negative mental or behavioral health symptom.
Even before the pandemic, the College’s counseling services were stretched thin, serving approximately one-third of Bowdoin’s student population at any given time. Because of this, setting up consistent meetings with one’s preferred appointment intervals could be a challenge.
“When a student reaches out in acute distress, we make ourselves available as soon as is needed,” Mendiola wrote. “When a student is not undergoing a mental health crisis, the average wait time is about four days. During specific high-volume weeks of the semester, the wait time can be as long as one to two weeks for counseling and psychiatric services.”
The Counseling Services’ staff will often try to schedule appointments based on students’ own evaluations of their mental health needs. The wait time for consistent appointments, however, can vary.
“[Counseling Services] just don’t have enough people. It took me a month once I asked to be on meds for them to get me an appointment with the psychiatrist, which was a little problematic,” Altschul said. “Because they also didn’t have a lot of [staff], I could only go in for therapy once every other week, and right now I’m currently seeing my therapist [from home] every week.”
Due to Counseling Services’ relatively small full-time staff, students often do not have the opportunity to interact with a range of counselors before selecting a counselor that best matches their needs.
“I didn’t really like my therapist, I kind of wanted to switch, but they’re like, ‘yeah, we just don’t have any openings.’ That’s really the biggest thing that needs to change; they just have no resources,” Altschul said.
Susu Gharib ’23, another student who uses counseling services on campus, echoed this sentiment.
“With therapy, you never stay with the first person you see, right? You kind of therapist shop, I guess. It’s especially hard at Bowdoin doing that because there’s such a high demand to go to counseling, but they don’t have enough counselors,” Gharib said in a phone interview with the Orient. “They were letting me kind of jump between counselors when I was on campus, but now, it’s significantly harder, I can’t really do that.”
For some students, this high demand was amplified during remote learning this fall—getting in touch with counselors and maintaining access to medication were especially challenging.
“While I was on campus, my experience with Bowdoin counseling was actually really good. But since we’ve all been sent home for COVID[-19] I literally have not talked to my therapist, and it’s been like, seven months,” Byars-Waller said. “I have talked to my psychiatrist once, but I’ve been running out of medication. So, I’m kind of screwed.”
Despite restrictions and limitations to counseling brought about by the pandemic, Counseling Services staff are still working to help students the best they can.
“I just think [Lindsay Jacobs], [who] does all the communications, is an absolute saint. She does her best to get you appointments. I really couldn’t get my prescription filled here in Vermont for my psychiatrist at home because of the state lines thing, so she got me a same-day appointment with the Bowdoin psychiatrist to prescribe it to me and have it here,” Gharib said.
Bowdoin offers a variety of free options to meet students’ mental health needs, with counseling at the center of its practices.
“The term [counseling] also often refers to treatment that is offered on a more short-term, less consistent basis. Typically our approach to working with students at Bowdoin is short-term and semi-regular,” Mendiola wrote. “In many respects, there is little difference between the practices of counseling and therapy.”
The term counseling is also typically less “stigmatizing,” he added.
“I had a therapist throughout most of my high school experience, but it was really helpful to get a new perspective because it really does feel more like counseling than the cognitive behavior therapy I got before,” Ray George ’23 said in a phone interview with the Orient. “It does feel like a very personal experience where you’ll see your counselor on campus and say ‘hi’ to each other instead of this strictly professional relationship of client and patient, which I really appreciate.”
While student experiences with counseling vary, many do voice appreciation for the free services.
“I’m glad they have it, and it’s not ideal, in many ways, but it’s very easy, ” Altschul said. “It’s so much more work in the real world to actually do it all. The nicest thing is Bowdoin just makes it very easy, and there’s not really much judgment around it when you’re in there.”
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