Concerns that already weighed heavily upon college students—worries about landing internships, unrealistic social media expectations and more—have taken a back seat to the wide-reaching uneasiness caused by COVID-19.
Even before the latest health scare, more than 60 percent of U.S. college students reported experiencing “overwhelming anxiety,” according to the American College Health Association. Now those anxieties have escalated as students transition to remote learning, spend their days cooped up at home and experience job loss.
As the surge of coronavirus cases forced universities nationwide to close campuses, FIU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) turned to its existing online infrastructure to respond quickly to students’ mental health needs.
CAPS has for more than two decades offered traditional clinical services in support of mental health and in recent years has seen roughly a 30 percent increase in utilization by students seeking professional help for everything from anxiety and stress management to serious and persistent mental illness that impact their ability to graduate.
Recognizing that urgent need, FIU several years ago began increasing its number of licensed therapists, added more group therapy sessions and created new services that include teletherapy and other online offerings. These latter in particular have proved to be essential during the current pandemic.
Students who previously attended in-person appointments are now instead tapping into teletherapy, which allows them to meet a licensed clinician via secure video conferencing. Since CAPS began operating fully remotely in response to the closure of campus, an average of 250 student consultations per week have taken place, which includes appointments with a psychologist or psychiatrist as well as group therapy. This accounts for about 80 percent of the usual volume of on-campus consultations.
Students also have the option of speaking over the phone to a clinician or participating in text/chat therapy. Plus, online-modules that teach skills to achieve stress relief and reduce anxiety can be used in conjunction with other available digital therapy or on their own. Finally, live virtual events, which replace many formerly on-campus activities, are drawing in students. These include “Ask Me” sessions with clinicians and Zoom-based workshops on topics such as managing social isolation and anxiety.
“My usual coping mechanisms where I would hang out with some friends or go to a park are not an option during a time of social distancing and quarantine,” says Eliandro Ramirez Chang, a 23-year-old psychology major. “I found teletherapy to be oddly comforting during this time. Maybe it’s because I had already established a relationship with my clinician before this pandemic, so I know who’s on the other side of that phone call, but it feels new and more convenient.”
Another component of the CAPS portfolio is the peer education program, which annually employs about 15 students who proactively address their classmates on mental health topics. These campus-based educators reach more than 2,500 students through presentations and literature distribution—and they continue to be on the job during the current crisis.
Realizing that community building is more important than ever, these same peer educators are using social media to keep the channels of communication open during this time of social distancing. Peer educators are reaching out to students via the CAPS Instagram account, which has the largest social media audience for a counseling center at a public university in Florida.
“There is no question that students receive the message better from their peers,” says Wendy X. Ordonez, who oversees the program. She cites the feeling of community created through peer-to-peer interaction, which ultimately reduces isolation and normalizes the conversation surrounding mental health.
FIU’s forward thinking is clearly paying off. According to the Psychiatric Times, many universities are just now trying to respond to the changing climate by attempting to rapidly shift to virtual visits and telehealth. Fortunately for FIU students, CAPS is ahead of the game with so much of its programming already structured for offering online.
Some of the innovations are a direct result of feedback from students. “CAPS is an ever-evolving program that students help shape,” says Todd Lengnick, director. “By collaborating with students, peer educators and other departments, we are constantly finding better ways to deliver services.”