Nearly a week after move-in, Gonzaga students are busy adjusting back into college life after months of pandemic-induced isolation. Meanwhile, members of the GU staff are also facing a daunting task: altering university resources to function in a virtual world.
GU’s Health & Counseling Services is one of the main campus resources for students seeking mental health support, receiving over 600 psychiatric visits in 2019. But since counseling necessitates contact, members of the counseling team have been forced to innovate in order to best serve students in the context of a pandemic.
“COVID-19 has definitely changed the landscape for counseling at Gonzaga University,” Kristiana Holmes, the director of Health & Counseling Services at GU said.
While the approach to student counseling has not changed, the format of sessions and appointments has.
Holmes said that counseling services are currently being offered through Zoom, though students undergoing crisis situations are able to interact with a counselor in person. In person sessions may also be an option for students whose specific circumstances cannot be accurately dealt with in a virtual space.
But the transition has not been easy.
“Counselors have had to learn how to engage in tele-mental health visits in a short period of time,” Holmes said.
Adding to the pressure, this shift is also occurring in the midst of a crucial staff change, with the board-certified GU psychiatrist resigning, in good terms, following the end of the summer semester.
Holmes said that efforts are being made to fill this position and that there are various structures of support in place to provide psychiatric care and medication management.
One of those measures is the GU partnership with Psychiatric Residency Spokane and other community partners.
Fortunately, in spite of many curveballs thrown at Holmes and her team, counseling staff and students alike have reported that virtual sessions have been much more successful than anticipated.
In addition to GU’s Health & Counseling Services, other mental health resources are made available by the Center for Cura Personalis (CCP).
“Our main role as resource brokers, as we like to say, is identifying what is needed, figuring out those resources that are available, then helping students navigate those resources,” Sean Joy, case manager, said.
The CCP team has also been instrumental in connecting students to counseling resources both on- and off-campus, including connecting students to various campus partners within the Spokane community.
Joy said that CCP strives to align with the Jesuit value of accompaniment, meaning that it works alongside students to find what works for them, and eventually helps them learn to self-advocate.
The values and missions of CCP are unaltered, but the extraordinary circumstances brought about by the coronavirus have forced Joy and his team to be creative with connecting with students.
“We have worked really hard to make sure that our resources and ability to connect with students can still be maintained,” Joy said.
For CCP, which prides itself on being personable and warm with students, this has involved a lot of flexibility and adaptation. CCP has been innovative in providing its services virtually.
Appointments with case managers like Joy are still offered for students in need of mental health resources, though they are now almost solely available through phone and video conferencing services like Zoom. Virtual meetings can be scheduled by email.
Students can also schedule an appointment by scanning a QR code available both on CCP social media platforms and on a posted sign in front of the Crosby Student Center.
Crucially, students and faculty members are also still able to refer potentially struggling students to CCP via an online referral form on the GU website at www.gonzaga.edu/refer.
Similar to the Health & Counseling Services, the CCP staff still offers in-person consultations in crisis-response situations, allowing at-risk members of the GU community to access necessary assistance.
The efforts of CCP to offer extensive support to students is a reflection of the belief in the importance of resources for college students. Joy said that, for many students, mental health has never been a conversation until coming to college.
“Having resources, specifically around mental health, are tools and pieces that help folks thrive,” Joy said.
While those resources inevitably look different in the context of a pandemic, Joy said he believes they are more necessary than ever, especially when mixed emotions surrounding the coronavirus may exacerbate student stress.
His beliefs are not unfounded. While college students have long been plagued by distinct rates of depression and suicidal ideation, recent data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that this has grown since the start of COVID-19.
The difficult combination of loss, isolation and financial hardship, among other factors, can have monumental impacts on college students, many of whom already display high levels of stress.
With this knowledge, Holmes, Joy and other members of the GU counseling team are dedicated to extending their care even during difficult circumstances.
“I hope our students feel love and support all around them. We are here for them," Joy said. "If they need support, we are here to guide and figure stuff out together.”