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Western's counseling services are moved to online platforms due to social distancing measures. // Illustration by Rachel Alexander

By Kiana Doyle and Cami Sires

Even during a global pandemic, resources for students who struggle with their mental health remain available both on and off campus.

Anne Marie Theiler, interim director at Western’s counseling center, explained that the process of remote appointments involves listening to the concerns of the students and their answers to the questions the counselors will ask.

“We all are mental health providers, we will ask some questions about severity and risk, such as whether or not a student is experiencing suicidal thoughts, so that we can provide whatever support is needed at that moment,” Theiler said.

Theiler said the type of remote appointments are dependent on a  consultations by phone and when appropriate, may follow up with counseling through videoconferencing. 

Theiler explained, some students find that a supportive phone call is all they need at the moment. Other students may need further help and can be scheduled for an appointment through Zoom.

“Usually students are scheduled for an initial phone consultation the same day they call,” she said.

The Western counseling center does not have a limit on the number of appointments a student can make.

“Requests for services are actually slower than normal at the beginning of the quarter,” Theiler said. “But, during times of high demand, appointments may be scheduled farther out, or on an ‘as needed’ basis.”

Theiler explained that not all issues, however, are appropriate for online appointments.

“Students who are experiencing severe symptoms, who are at high risk for harming themselves or others, or who are likely to experience high anxiety or significant obstacles using technology for counseling sessions should seek out local services in their community.” she said.

“We hope that students know the counseling center is here for them 24/7. Even when we are closed, students can call our mainline at 360-650-3164 and choose option one to reach our after-hours counselor,” Theiler said.

Amy Dunham, Western’s Suicide Prevention coordinator, has made big goals for helping with mental health resources and education at Western since starting the job in January.

“I do want to focus on crisis intervention, but what I’d really like to do is help people learn some healthy wellness skills and coping skills and things like that long before they need that intervention,” she said.

Dunham works with Western’s mental health peer educators from THRIVE, Together Helping Reach Individual Victories Everyday, and plans to promote mental health and suicide prevention with them in the upcoming year by handling different mental health topics each month.

Handouts from the first two monthly mental health topics from Dunham and THRIVE are available online. The topic for February was self love, and for March it was sleep hygiene.

Lauren Wallach, a second-year at Western and THRIVE Peer Health Coordinator, said THRIVE is a student group focused on mental health and body empowerment. The group works alongside the counseling and health centers to provide resources and advocate for student mental health.

Dunham said the Prevention and Wellness website features many other resources for students besides the counseling center, including emotional wellness resources such as ACDAS alcohol and drug consultation and assessment services and CASAS Survivor Advocacy Service as well. These services provide information about other support resources and informative pages about different subjects like what to do in an emergency involving substances or how to support survivors of sexual violence.

Dunham said a page on the website offering a comprehensive list for mental health resources both on and off campus for students is in the works, but because of COVID-19, it has been a little delayed.

Dunham wants students to know that the counseling center is still holding individual, virtual appointments for students wanting to talk to a counselor and “Wellness Wednesdays,” a discussion workshop series about different mental health topics, are still going on via Zoom.

“We’re still offering our services,” Dunham said. “We are still here and we do still want to help.”

Wallach said the counseling center has been helpful to her since she was paired with a counselor she really connected with, and while she knows that this may not be the case for everyone and there may be room for growth in the counseling center, she thinks there is a “good foundation” for the center already.

“I do think that there's a lot of misconceptions about the counseling center and the services that they offer and how easy it is to access their resources,” Wallach said.

Information about the phone consultations and online wellness series can be found on the university counseling center website.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, Dunham said, and she encourages students to check out the different programs the counseling center is hosting for May under the workshops section of the counseling center website.

Unfortunately, not all students may have access to these online resources through the counseling center.

Jessica Marie Rollins, a fourth-year at Western, has moved back home for spring quarter, where her Wi-Fi connection does not support virtual meetings. Zoom sessions with the counseling center are out of the question for her even as online learning has been difficult for her and she has been struggling with her mental health this quarter.

“I am aware that these services are being offered, and even if I wanted to utilize them, I wouldn’t be able to due to my living circumstances,” Rollins said in an email.

Rollins said her support system of friends, allowing time to feel her emotions thoroughly, taking medication for her mental health, praying and meditating, taking CBD and watching comforting shows or movies have helped her take care of her mental health at this time.

Rollins said she has had a negative experience with the counseling center in the past and did not find it helpful, so she feels she would not use the counseling center’s resources even if her internet connection would allow for it.

“I think that they need to hire better counselors and change how they go about treating mental health issues in the student population,” Rollins said.

Dunham said she plans on increasing education and training around mental health to students, staff and faculty, which would entail teaching about signs to look for when someone might be struggling, what steps to take to talk to them and what resources they can connect to at Western.

“I’ve been so impressed with how many different resources there are at Western,” Dunham said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people that I talk to are not aware of a lot of them.”

Grey Lee, a first-year transfer student at Western, said they are currently unaware of the other mental health resources at Western. Their experience at the counseling center on campus entailed being referred to phone apps to use or group therapy sessions.

“It did kind of leave me feeling like, ‘Oh, I thought I had more resources to talk to,’” Lee said.

There are also always other resources in Bellingham for those who can utilize virtual meetings who wish to seek counseling off campus.

Kaileh Butler, an interning therapist at Accent Counseling in Bellingham, is offering COVID-19 self care and processing sessions for $20.

“There is a higher need for people to just have another outlet or a source to be able to talk to,” Butler said.

She pointed out how this situation can be difficult to process and that it is more than natural to just need someone to talk with about this experience.

Butler said her sessions are designed to be an outlet where the emotions, feelings and fears that may be brought up by the global pandemic can be discussed. The sessions conclude with self care and coping recommendations to encourage steps forward.

Elaine Dilley, an off-campus counselor, said that outsourcing is beneficial for students because they can choose a counselor they feel comfortable with.

“Variety and fit is so important when meeting with a counselor, some people feel more comfortable with someone older, younger, male, female, or a counselor that specializes in a certain thing,” Dilley said.

Dilley said another reason outsourcing is effective for students is because they can build a relationship with their chosen counselor and though they might not need counseling every week, they have someone to go to that they have already built a connection with.

Dilley, who has been providing TeleHealth and call sessions for clients since March 16, said at first her clients were hesitant about changing to a new forum for communication because of technical and privacy issues, but they soon began to adapt and get creative.

“They get creative with privacy, asking their family or roommates to step outside or in their car for an hour or just wear headphones,” Dilley said.

Dilley has clients who don’t have access to a computer or video call and use voice calls for sessions.

“With an existing client, because I know them well and we have gotten the chance to meet and connect, there is no lower quality to the session,” Dilley said.

New clients have started meeting with Dilley on TeleHealth. She said she prefers to use video calls when she gets new clients, but it’s not required.

“I’ve had a new client that started out sessions on TeleHealth since the switch, it seems to be progressing quite nicely, now I know that it is possible to meet new clients through TeleHealth and they can get effective help,” Dilley said.

Through COVID-19 and the switch to online services, Dilley said she has found that her clients are coming more often and not missing any scheduled sessions.

“Before quarantine I’d schedule six sessions a day and only five clients would show up. Now all six clients are showing up because they have the ability to talk to me from home,” Dilley said. “One thing is clear, TeleHealth sessions can be just as effective, and they are working.”

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