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Support for mental health ramps up at W&M amid COVID-19

  • Small purple flags on the lawn in front of wellness center with three signs with mental health information
    Prevention awareness:  An exhibit outside William & Mary’s McLeod Tyler Wellness Center during National Suicide Prevention Week Sept. 8-11 displays 1,100 flags representing the number of U.S. college students who die by suicide each year. W&M makes suicide prevention training available year-round to the entire campus community through Campus Connect.  Photo by Jim Agnew
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In the face of the stress and uncertainty of living through a pandemic, William & Mary has adapted its programs and services to offer expanded mental health and wellness resources. 

This semester has brought a myriad of stressors. Students are coping with the effects of COVID-19, social justice issues and the election — on top of day-to-day academic and social pressures. 

“If you are feeling confused, concerned, stressed or worried, you have a lot of company these days,” said Dr. David Dafashy, director of the Student Health Center. “Such feelings commonly arise during times of uncertainty, change and social isolation. Those feelings can seem overwhelming at times, impacting our confidence, our sense of well-being, our ability to optimally function and our overall enjoyment of life.”

A holistic approach

The Student Health Center recognizes that a holistic approach to overall wellness is generally more effective than one that focuses solely on medical treatments, Dafashy said.

“In addition to medication, when appropriate, there are many well-proven strategies that can help us cope during such challenging times,” he added.

These include taking care of our bodies and minds and connecting with others.

“During this time of extreme isolation, know that we are all in this together,” Dafashy said. “The Student Health Center exists solely for your wellness, and we encourage you to connect not only with us, but with the many restorative resources that the William & Mary Wellness initiative provides.”

A new Ways to Flourish podcast series addressing how to be mentally healthy and flourish through challenges just launched.

With everything from Health & Wellness programs to campus-wide suicide prevention training pivoting to digital platforms, many on campus have worked to make the university’s wellness offerings as widely accessible as possible. Also this fall, the Parks Research Lab’s Campus Greenspace Map was unveiled and promoted for use in helping with mental wellness as well as physical distancing.

“We know that being outside is good for one’s mental health, and Campus Recreation is providing many opportunities for students to be outside in a safe way,” said Linda Knight, director of Campus Recreation.

“We are hearing from the students they are struggling being in their rooms so much. Campus Recreation is proud to be part of the Health & Wellness team that is providing many proactive opportunities to help support the mental well-being of our students, faculty and staff.”

Additional mental health resources

Carina Sudarsky-Gleiser, director of the Counseling Center, and her team have found ways to be agile with their services and outreach to not only attend to the mental health challenges of the pandemic, but also the social unrest and those directly impacted, according to Associate Vice President for Health & Wellness Kelly Crace. They have not only been very effective in their teletherapy work, but also in their outreach, he said.

“The Counseling Center started offering tele-mental health services after the university transitioned to remote learning in March,” Sudarsky-Gleiser said. “All clinicians engaged in intensive training in order to gain the most up-to-date professional information about the clinical, ethical and legal issues associated with mental health services via the internet.”

At the same time, the Counseling Center worked closely with Information Technology to secure a HIPAA-compliant video-conferencing platform that allowed students to continue to receive mental health support in a confidential manner while away from campus during the second half of the spring semester and the summer months, according to Sudarsky-Gleiser. Center staff continued offering digital services this fall for both on-campus and remote students, both in Virginia and in other states that have a temporary reciprocal emergency licensing procedure.

The center also collaborated with University Libraries and IT to ensure private space and computers in Swem Library that students can use for tele-mental health services if that wasn’t available in their living space. Spaces for such use also are available in the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center.

The volume of services provided also has increased.

“We have had a 12% increase in total number of appointments, a 59% increase in individual counseling sessions and a 38% increase in medication follow-up appointments when we compare the services offered during the first five weeks of the fall semester of 2019 with the first five weeks of the fall semester of 2020,” Sudarsky-Gleiser said.

Increased outreach

In addition to regular appointments, the Counseling Center is focusing on serving students using virtual outreach/psycho-educational programming. A total of 61 virtual programs have been offered since March, focusing particularly on the impact of the pandemic, racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiments in the nation, targeted to the most-affected communities, according to Sudarsky-Gleiser.

Additional programs focused on gender identity; health issues; interpersonal concerns, isolation and loneliness; coping with stress and anxiety; coping with depression; suicide prevention; positive psychology and information sessions regarding Counseling Center services. A total of 942 graduate and undergraduate students, faculty and staff members have been served through these programs since March.

Current services also include eight remote therapy groups, as well as ongoing support groups and meetings. Since early in the pandemic, Counseling Center staff have focused on developing numerous virtual information sheets emphasizing coping strategies to manage the impact of COVID-19 on social support, mental health and academic functioning due to the transition to online learning, according to Sudarsky-Gleiser.

The Office of Health Promotion also offers Kognito’s At-Risk program which helps students, faculty and staff learn how to support others in times of crisis.

“The Office of Health Promotion oversees SilverCloud, an online psycho-educational website to help students handle anxiety, depression, stress and most recently the negative and positive consequences associated with the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” said Eric Garrison, assistant director of Health Promotion. “This is still a popular, useful and free tool for faculty, staff and students.”