Mind Over Matter
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
In a virtual environment, access to mental health support is more important—and impersonal—than ever.
By Claire Schweitzer.
Content Warning: This article contains references to anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
When it comes to addressing mental health during the pandemic, students may not immediately think of Columbia as a source of assistance. Instead, for many, school is a source of unhealthy stress. Indeed, Columbia’s student body has repeatedly ranked as one of the most stressed out. But a wave of seven student suicides in the 2016-2017 school year prompted reflection on mental health issues at the University. Columbia has aimed to better assist struggling students by loosening medical leave restrictions, instituting a Mental Health Week, and expanding health and wellness programs on campus.
Still, some students feel that these changes are superficial. An anonymous junior at SEAS reasoned, “Around finals seasons, we get a lot of emails about self-care, which is a bandaid for larger problems at Columbia. The University should focus on creating broader changes, rather than putting on silly events for the students, like dog petting.”
Institutional resources are necessary now more than ever, as the pandemic has significantly impacted the public’s mental health. Before COVID-19, roughly one in 10 Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, but now one in three do. Over 50% of Americans have claimed that their mental health has deteriorated due to the pandemic, citing fear of illness, social isolation, financial pressures, and more. Studies indicate that students are especially prone to increased mental health issues, and over 70% of higher-education students have reported a negative impact on their mental health. Even if, as some would argue, addressing student wellness is not a top priority for the University, maintaining academic achievement certainly is, and deteriorating mental health has been shown to affect students’ ability to succeed academically by lowering their motivation and concentration levels. Clearly, the University has incentive to provide students with adequate mental health support.
Members of the Columbia community have access to well-established mental health resources through two distinct services: Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) and the student-run Nightline. These institutions diverge in the types of care they provide and in how they have adapted their services to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Counseling and Psychological Services is a branch of Columbia Health whose objective is, according to its website, to support “the psychological and emotional wellbeing of the Columbia community.” CPS offers individual counseling with mental health professionals to address issues such as anxiety, depression, academic concerns, substance abuse, and relationship problems. CPS also hosts support groups centered around shared concerns or the development of specific skills. This includes spaces for students of color and first-generation students as well as groups facilitating mindfulness and coping skills. In March, CPS moved to an entirely virtual telehealth model, with no interruption in services. To supplant the traditional in-person group therapy format, CPS developed virtual support and drop-in spaces. Dr. Richard Eichler, the Executive Director of CPS since 1992, explained, “CPS began offering these virtual spaces to address a variety of concerns, many of which were suggested by students, both general and specific to dealing with COVID-19, like graduating amid a pandemic, being back at home, and academic success in troubled times.” Additionally, groups were created to support students during this summer’s wave of protests against racist violence.
Notably, CPS has experienced a steady usage of its counseling services since the start of the pandemic and an uptick in demand over the summer, which is usually a time of decreased participation. Eichler is proud of the continuance of CPS services, explaining that it demonstrates “a significant operational feat and commitment to continuity of care for students.”
Some students have expressed that CPS is helping them combat the increased mental pressures of the pandemic and virtual learning. They are not surprised by the increase in CPS usage over the summer, as they acknowledge their peers are contending with similarly challenging circumstances. A Barnard first-year explained, “I wasn’t getting the emotional support I needed from my friends,” which contributed to a decline in her mental health. A SEAS junior who has used CPS three times this fall said, “Students are more inclined to use CPS now because of the unique stressors including being with family, being away from friends, the isolation, and online classes. Based on what I’ve heard from my friends, this is a sad, dark time for many.” She also elaborated on her own reasons for seeking help from CPS, noting, “Being in my room all day taking classes as opposed to on campus was one of the reasons why I have been using CPS.”
Victor Jandres Rivera, CC ’24, who attends weekly CPS appointments, explained, “School is more stressful online because it’s harder to learn and a lot of the social aspects are taken away. Remote learning has been very isolating and I have been feeling disconnected from Columbia itself, so using CPS was a good way to feel more grounded and to have another resource to help with Columbia.”
Some students say that the pandemic has created an opportunity to reflect on their mental health, regardless of any new stressors, which may also have contributed to the increase in individuals seeking counseling services. The SEAS junior explained that she had been wanting to go to CPS for a while, but the pandemic gave her the final push to actually do it. “I had more time to be introspective and think about my mental health,” she said. Faith Ajayi, CC ’21, one of Nightline’s directors, explained that a key reason students have cited for calling Nightline is that “they are paying more attention to mental health during the pandemic.”
The virtual counseling format has both benefits and downsides, but it seems that, at least for now, the good outweighs the bad. CPS uses satisfaction surveys to gauge whether their services meet student needs, and since the transition to teletherapy, Eichler said, “Students overwhelmingly report a very high level of satisfaction with the quality of care they have received, and even more importantly, most report feeling significantly less distress after even a few sessions.” He explained the value of virtual counseling as having “allowed our team to support students from practically anywhere, during an incredibly challenging time when many students would otherwise lose access to care because they no longer reside on or near campus.”
Eichler said that virtual group therapy sessions have been well-received and have accomplished their goal of allowing students to bond over shared experiences. Moreover, he explained, “Conducting these groups through Zoom has the added advantage of bypassing physical space constraints that otherwise limit the number of group offerings.” Both the anonymous SEAS junior and Jandres Rivera said that virtual therapy is more convenient, which encourages them to use it more. The SEAS junior explained, “It was easier for me to actually show up than if I had to go all the way to someone’s office—I may have canceled in a busy week.” Jandres Rivera reasoned, “If it were in person, it would be more difficult to work it into my schedule and I would probably push it off a lot more.”
But some novel difficulties have emerged along with the online format. “There is no replacement for talking with someone face-to-face,” Eichler acknowledged. “Students can benefit from the connection they feel to a clinician and this can be difficult to form or foster to the same degree online.” In virtual group therapy, there are also added challenges: “The safety and connectedness of the space for sharing can feel different by nature of being virtual.” Eichler also explained that students have expressed struggles with internet connectivity, finding private spaces, and Zoom fatigue. In the CPS satisfaction surveys, many students who had previously met with CPS in person indicated they prefer in-person counseling. The anonymous SEAS junior said the potential for connectivity issues adds additional stress to what can already be an “overwhelming situation.” She reasoned that therapy “is definitely more awkward online. A lot of us cry in our sessions, and doing that over video chat was very humbling and strange.” The Barnard first-year said, “For me, talking about my sexuality and suicidal thoughts was difficult knowing my parents were listening.” She also expressed that it was challenging to talk about her parents to her therapist when they might overhear her session. Jandres Rivera explained another challenge of virtual counseling: It’s harder for the health professional to gauge how the patient is feeling based on their body language because they are only seeing a small panel of the patient on zoom. He explained, “When I was having a diagnostic appointment, the doctor was trying to observe how I was reacting, and whether I was skittish, but it is hard to notice those things when you’re just on a Zoom box.”
CPS is one of the most well-funded and oldest psychological counseling services of its kind in the country. Yet students feel CPS does not have sufficient resources to function properly. Jandres Rivera explained that, because of limited appointment availability, he cannot meet with CPS as often as he would like. “Especially because for some people’s problems that they are seeking help for, it’s imperative that they can meet with CPS regularly,” he explained. The SEAS junior agreed: “What people need most from a virtual service is accessibility. Students have struggled to find available appointment times, which shows a failure of Columbia’s to provide for its students in this way.” Additionally, some feel that the University ought to do more than provide counseling services. “Having a counseling service is the bare minimum the school should do,” the SEAS junior said. The Barnard first-year has expressed that the University is “not addressing how pandemic-related issues are affecting people’s ability to do work.”
Unlike CPS, Nightline, Columbia’s student-run mental health service, has always held its counseling appointments remotely. Nightline has a strict confidentiality policy and a rigorous training process for its listeners. Ajayi explained that Nightline is “a place for students who feel that the institution [of Columbia] is not enough to support them.” Their two mottos are that “there is no problem too big or too small” and “we are here to get the person through the night.” “We definitely get calls about very serious issues, and sometimes we are the only person our listener has,” Ajayi said. “We try to be someone they can rely on for emotional support, even if it’s just to keep them safe for the night.” But Ajayi acknowledged that there is often a limit to the support Nightline can offer, especially because it is a virtual service. When applicable, listeners urge their callers to seek out professional help.
Nightline often receives calls from students who are wary of CPS’s services. Ajayi attributed this to several reasons, including the “poor reputation [CPS] has formed among students” and “bad experiences students have had there.” Others simply find it less intimidating to talk with a fellow student than an adult. Additionally, Ajayi stated, “I definitely understand why students say there are not enough mental health resources from Columbia.” She explained that many Nightline callers have expressed that it is difficult to get an appointment with CPS, even if they have already been attending regular counseling there. Sometimes people call Nightline because they cannot find an available CPS therapist appointment for several weeks. Moreover, Ajayi argued, “If people complained that mental health resources were scarce before the pandemic, they are definitely less available now.” However, Nightline does collaborate with CPS, insofar as they refer students to CPS when they feel it is appropriate; they are adamant that their service is not a substitute for professional help.
While Nightline has always held its services remotely, it has nonetheless experienced changes due to the pandemic. Most notably, Nightline cut its hours at the urging of its University advisor, from 10:00 p.m to 3:00 a.m. every night to 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. three times a week. The advisor reasoned that the University wanted Nightline to be able to refer students to Columbia-based resources, which are only available during normal operating hours. The University viewed this as especially imperative for students living far from campus or in foreign countries, who may be especially in need of Columbia’s remote resources.
Nightline’s decrease in operation hours is worrisome when one considers, as Ajayi puts it, that “students need our services now more than ever.” She elaborated, “All you have to look at is the mood of students. Sites like Columbia Confessions reveal some of the types of issues callers are dealing with. We have been through so much as a student body. A lot of people are feeling isolated and cut off from their regular support systems, so Nightline is especially important.”
Is Columbia culpable for creating a stressful environment that deteriorates students’ mental health to the point where they need access to these resources, or does student culture play a larger role? “Nearly everyone I know agrees that this is an unnecessarily difficult school,” the SEAS junior said. “The workload is very intense, the amount of classes you need to take to graduate is unnecessarily high.” Indeed, in comparison to peer institutions, Columbia requires a slightly larger semesterly course load for students to graduate— around 4.5 courses for CC and 5 for SEAS in contrast to the average of 4 at Harvard and Yale. But the junior added that there is a “voluntary stress culture,” wherein students reinforce each other’s stress by “constantly comparing themselves to each other—from the competitiveness of their internships to their GPA.” The anonymous Barnard first-year corroborated this, saying that at Columbia, “It feels like everyone has so many ideas and is constantly moving up. You can feel like you’re failing when compared to these people who are so talented, but this is often self-inflicted.”
Though the increased usage of psychological services during the pandemic is worrisome in that it reveals students’ increased stress, it can also be viewed as a positive shift toward a student body that prioritizes its mental health. Though eventually, all students will be able to return to campus as COVID-19 dissipates, hopefully the use of counseling services will not. More counseling may be more challenging to provide in person due to space and resource constraints, but Columbia, as a well-endowed and prestigious institution, doesn’t have to shy away from the challenge. Perhaps an on-campus student body will remind the University of its mission to serve its students holistically, or at least provide them with an improved means of advocacy.