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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Saint Mary's counseling continues to adapt after pandemic spike in mental health struggles

After a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression during the the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health counselors at Saint Mary's are working to adapt to the increasing need for counseling.

The entrance to the Health and Counseling Center inside the Angela Wellness Complex at Saint Mary's.

Saint Mary's Health and Counseling Center, located inside Angela Wellness Complex, offers physical and mental health care to students. Kate Barron, a mental health counselor at the Health and Counseling Center since 2015, said shifting to virtual counseling during the pandemic was a difficult experience.

“We thought ‘Oh, everyone will be back in a few weeks,’ and that was certainly not the case. We went online and we would do Google Meet meetings, which was tough,” Barron said. “We really scrambled to make sure people were tended to and had the connection they needed.”

Vanessa Hawkins '22 said she felt the counseling she received for depression and anxiety through the Center was useful at the time, but failed to address a deeper level of mental health.

“I thought it was helpful, more as like a supportive resource. What I mean by that is they don’t get deep into your psychological health and everything,” she said. “In my experience, they just gave me tips and suggestions, how to navigate time management and how to deal with conflicts with peers.”

Hawkins received her undergraduate degree in social work and currently interns at a behavioral therapy outpatient clinic. She said her experience has given her a unique perspective on what the Counseling Center could have done differently.

“I’ve found that just cognitive behavioral therapy does not work for that many people. I found that EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] therapy has helped tremendously and I’ve made so much progress in six months than I did in years and years of cognitive behavioral therapy,” she said.

Though Hawkins critiqued her counseling, she also acknowledged how stressful of a time it was for counselors and was grateful for the treatment she received.

“I know health care professionals with the pandemic were severely overwhelmed,” she said. “I did feel like the therapist was super professional. She listened well and knew what was going on with me. She was just a good quality therapist.”

Barron said the Center was stressed to ensure they could maximize the amount of patients seen each day.

“The stress mainly on our end as counselors was ‘Can we see enough students who want to be seen?’ Because our goal is to be helpful and to see as many students as possible,” she explained. “But then there’s only so many hours in a day. So we would work overtime, unpaid overtime. And it certainly affected all of us. We try and practice what we preach, but it's easier said than done.”

One thing Hawkins was happy about during her time in counseling at Saint Mary's was the availability of counselors.

“I felt like they were pretty available, I didn’t think there was anything of concern in those areas,” she said.

Sarah Granger, director of the Health and Counseling Center since 2021, said the availability problem stemmed from staffing issues.

“We did struggle with staffing on the mental health side. I think students were aware of that. And it wasn’t really any fault of our own, we just didn’t have the staff,” Granger said. “Now we’re at a much better spot staffing-wise. We have doubled our counseling staff from two to four.”

Barron also noted the difficulty of scheduling appointments for all who needed them.

“When we were back in fall of 2020, there was a lot to worry about. We only had two counselors at the time and it was very stressful for everyone, so we were really swamped,” Barron said.

At the time, the College offered a 24/7 telehealth service through Timely Care to combat limited counselor availability; however, the service is no longer offered through Saint Mary’s.

“We did that for a year and we would get the stats on how much it was used and it was hardly used at all. And it was very expensive, so we didn’t renew it,” Barron said.

Overall, Hawkins was generally satisfied with her time in counseling at Saint Mary’s but sees room for improvement.

“Mental health is such an important thing, that’s why I got into this field myself. I just think that there needs to be a larger emphasis on living a balanced lifestyle in college and educating students about taking care of their mental well-being,” she said.

Granger said the Center has taken a number of steps to improve its outreach, including increasing the visibility of the Center, hiring more staff and hiring a counselor who is fluent in Spanish.