Counseling Center Works to Offset the Pandemic’s Effect on Mental Health
Most campus programs have scaled back on events and resources, but the counseling center has bolstered efforts to meet student demand for psychological care.
By Kaitlin Liebling | Staff Writer
The Wheaton College Counseling Center has implemented a variety of new online resources to help students dealing with COVID-19-related stress, grief, anxiety and depression. New resources include the center’s virtual wellness toolboxes and psychoeducational workshops, as well as “De-Stress Week,” a campus-side event held the second week of March.
Karen Hurula, who became director of the counseling center in February, said that these new programs are meant to address the increased need for therapy and counseling among students during the pandemic. “[We’ve heard] the amount of concern students had on campus about their mental health, and feeling like either the college wasn’t hearing them or wasn’t understanding the level of mental health distress,” she said. “It’s entirely normal that you feel off, that you don’t feel your best, that you struggle to focus when you’ve never struggled to focus before. Since all of us are experiencing that, we really want that message to be clear: it’s okay not to be okay.”
Hurula also cited the challenges involved in offering traditional therapy to remote Wheaton students. Licensing laws often prohibit counselors from providing teletherapy to out-of-state clients, which means remote students are not allowed to meet directly with counseling center therapists. “So starting in the fall we began experimenting with doing one-off workshops,” Hurula said.
These online psychoeducational workshops meet over Zoom and have touched on a variety of topics. One series focused on Christian mindfulness. Another emphasized emotional well-being. Beginning in February, the counseling center hosted a 5-week series on positive psychology, a psychological philosophy that focuses on positive thinking.
Each session lasts 50 minutes. Hurula said the brevity of the sessions gives students who might not have an hour to spare each week for counseling the opportunity to join the call and watch the presentations when their schedule permits.
“I think workshops are the easiest entry into getting to know us,” Hurula said. “We’re not keeping attendance; we’re not keeping a record of you. We just want you to show up and get some good information.”
In addition to online workshops, the counseling center is also offering 30-minute informational “Wellness Toolboxes.” A Record reporter attended a session entitled “Managing Anxiety.” During the class, counseling staff member Amira Mina, who led the workshop, advised students to cultivate a “wise mind” that analyzes overwhelming situations in a balanced way. Mina also discussed a variety of physical relaxation techniques meant to help students reduce their anxiety, including paced breathing, intense exercise and paired muscle relaxation.
At the counseling center’s recommendation, the college has purchased a subscription to an online program called Therapy Assistance Online, a platform helps centralize counseling resources and enhance the psychoeducational experience for participants. The program allows all current students to access TAO’s programs for free. Using a QR code located on the counseling center’s webpage, students can sign up for the service anonymously and access modules that discuss how to identify and manage stress, depression and anxiety and a variety of assessment quizzes.
“They’re not the full commitment of a full therapy experience,” said Hurula. “But it’s a little bit of extra support, a little bit of extra understanding and good psycho-ed.”
This semester, the counseling center is also returning to in-person care by offering three in-person group therapy sessions focusing on anxiety, grief and cultural intersectionality. Groups began meeting on Feb. 24 and will continue to gather once every week for six weeks total.
“We really want students in the psychotherapy groups to get to know each other and contribute to conversation together,” said Hurula. “They are in person, so you really feel like you can build some trust in the room.”
Laura Nagg, a junior applied health science major, said she had utilized the counseling center this year. “[College life during a pandemic] is difficult sometimes with the social distancing and lack of activities,” Nagg said. “I’ve definitely appreciated the counseling center’s resources being available, and their outreach to the students.”
Hurula and her staff also recently finished hosting a “de-stress week” for students, which ran during the same week when students would normally be on spring break. An expansion of the annual “De-Stress Day” of previous years, the activities included psycho-ed workshops, therapy dog sessions, food trucks, a ‘pot-a-plant’ event and outdoor gospel choir concerts. Multiple student care offices, including the counseling center and Student Health Services, collaborated to organize the week’s events.
Students who participated in De-Stress Week events expressed gratitude for the wide variety of activities available.
“I think ‘De-Stress Week’ was a good idea. I honestly really appreciate it,” said Sarah Owen, a junior English writing major who visited the therapy dogs and went to the “pot-a-plant” event in the Meyer Science Center greenhouse. “I think going forward, since this is a really stressful semester for a lot of people, maybe even more events [would be beneficial].”