Mental health resources focus on accessibility throughout pandemic, but barriers remain

Many mental health initiatives will continue to be offered through both virtual and in-person formats even after the pandemic.

by Daniel Modesto | 5/21/21 2:35am

dickshouse-julia-levine
by Julia Levine / The Dartmouth Staff

This article is featured in the 2021 Spring special issue.

As the instability of drastic change that spring 2020 brought has shifted to pandemic-related fatigue, students continue to grapple with mental health concerns. While students and administration alike have emphasized the importance of maintaining well-being throughout the pandemic and mental health resources have adapted alongside the College’s shift to remote operations, some students continue to face barriers to accessing these services. Despite a growing awareness to recognize mental health on campus, the challenges of adequately addressing mental health are certainly not new.

Over the past few years, the College has invested more money in its mental health resources.  In 2018, the College allocated $17 million in mental health resources, citing a national increase in student demand. In addition, the College has expanded the Counseling Center by hiring four more counselors within the past year. Despite this allocation of funds, some students have continued to face roadblocks in accessing these resources. 

The pandemic has, for some students, only further exacerbated the difficulty of accessing mental health resources. Last fall, students expressed concern that the College’s COVID-19 social restrictions negatively affected their mental health, and during the winter outbreak, students in isolation and quarantine faced even more strain on their mental well-being.  

When the College shifted classes online last March, mental health resources offered by the College also shifted to virtual platforms to address students’ mental health needs. Simultaneously, new initiatives spurred by the pandemic have increased accessibility to mental health resources for students.

In an email to The Dartmouth, assistant director of the Counseling Center Alex Lenzen explained that the Center offers multiple services, including short-term individual therapy, group therapy and discussion groups. The Counseling Center also runs Dartmouth Cares — a suidice prevention initiative intended to educate employees on how to provide resources and support to students. Lenzen said that these services, with the exception of group therapy, continue to be offered virtually.

Reyna Santoyo ’23 said she had thought about seeing a counselor at the Counseling Center for a while, since her mental health started to affect her performance in classes. It wasn’t until this past winter that Santoyo called the Counseling Center, where she scheduled an appointment and found her weekly meetings with her counselor “really helpful throughout the term.”

“The process was easy,” she said. “I feel lucky that everything has gone really well for me with the Counseling Center, which I know is not the case for everyone.”

Some negative experiences have led students to advocate for improvements to mental health resources at Dartmouth. Katheryn Caplinger ’20 had a particularly negative experience during her sophomore year when she made a triage appointment at the Counseling Center. 

According to Caplinger, she was experiencing some suicidal thoughts and said her counselor was “extremely pushy.” He asked her an invasive question about her suicidal thoughts, which Caplinger said made her “appalled and incredibly uncomfortable”; the counselor said he couldn’t help her until she answered his question. She recalled “having a breaking point” and crying, at which point the counselor escorted her out of the office because she wouldn’t answer the question. Caplinger said she “didn’t recall” that the Counseling Center followed up with her after the appointment.

According to Lenzen, after a student attends an appointment at the Counseling Center, there is “always some sort of follow-up.” For example, after a triage appointment, the Counseling Center will follow up with the student to schedule another appointment. In the event the student misses the appointment, the Counseling Center encourages them to reschedule and reminds them of crisis resources.

“Essentially, it's sending a message to check in after an appointment, especially if there's no follow-up [appointment],” she said. “If the student doesn't show up for the follow-up, as planned, we’ll often check in about that. And otherwise, the follow-up is the next appointment.”

Although Lenzen said she couldn’t speak to any specific student experiences due to confidentiality, she recognized that because the Counseling Center is a “response resource,” it can’t solve the needs of the entire community, noting that the needs of the community “require culture changes [that] are connected to systems that are beyond just Dartmouth.”

“The Counseling Center can work and advocate for change that we think would benefit people's mental health,” she said. “But we don't actually have control over a lot of those things [like distress, grief, loss and isolation], and I think that's where we come up against our own limits.”

Caplinger said that mental health resources at Dartmouth need to be more sensitive to mental health concerns and address the underlying issues behind student’s concerns, rather than apply “temporary bandages.” Furthermore, she said, the issue of student mental health has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

According to Student Wellness Center director Caitlin Barthelmes, the last year has been difficult for “all human beings on this earth,” including for students’ mental health. She recognized that when the pandemic forced the SWC to go online “in a blink of an eye,” there was a sense of urgency to offer virtual resources to students.

“It is interesting to do work that has a focus on how to thrive and how to flourish, [because] it almost feels even more difficult to be thinking in that mindset, when so many of us are kind of having day-to-day struggles of just kind of surviving,” she said. “How we've approached our work this past year is that it's more important than ever to engage and experiment with practices that can support your well-being.”

To that extent, Barthelmes said that at the beginning of last spring term, the SWC began to offer asynchronous mindfulness and yoga sessions in addition to online wellness guides. Barthelmes said that live mindfulness and yoga drop-ins were also offered via Zoom. 

The Dartmouth Mental Health Student Union — a student organization that advocates for the destigmatization of mental health on campus — also began to offer virtual resources during the pandemic. Incoming co-president Brian Kim ’23 said that when Dartmouth announced in March of 2020 that spring term would be remote, the decision left the organization “confused” as to how to offer their resources virtually. 

However, according to Kim, the transition from in-person resources to Zoom was “pretty stable.” For example, support sessions that would meet in person at Collis were simply moved online, while Calendly appointments were made available so students could set check-in appointments.

Kim also said that two programs expanded during the pandemic. Peer support, which met four days a week before the pandemic, is now offered seven days a week. Additionally, in the winter, MHU created a “wellness challenge,” where around 50 students participated in activities such as making self-care kits and taking time to walk outside.

Kaynaan Henry ’24 said he was going through “tough times'” in the winter, both due to academics as well as being away from home. On the advice of Native American Program director Sarah Palacios, Henry scheduled an appointment at the Counseling Center. After a couple of appointments, he said that he saw improvements to his mental health.

“It definitely affected me positively, more than I had thought,” he said. “It wasn't so much that I was finding groundbreaking things [about myself] by going to talk, but more I had someone to rant to or vent to that made me feel more structured going into the week.” 

Barthelmes said that virtual resources have both benefits and drawbacks. She said that the virtual nature of mindfulness and yoga sessions make them more convenient, since students can follow along from their room. In addition, students can join these sessions without showing their face, which creates a more safe and comfortable environment.

However, Kim noted that many students miss in-person meetings because they provided a sense of intimacy.

“I'm pretty sure there are students out there who would prefer an in-person interaction, because that would feel more real,” he said. “It's kind of hard, for a lot of people, to have that kind of same interaction on Zoom as opposed to in person.”

As students returned to campus in the fall, both Barthelmes and Kim said that their websites experienced a surge in traffic. Kim added that more people started to use peer support sessions, which he attributed to students looking for help after months of being “stuck at home all day and [not being able to] meet with others and talk with others.” In particular, Kim said that the number of students who participated in the wellness challenge surpassed the MHU’s expectations, which demonstrated an increase in demand for mental health resources.

Barthelmes said that asynchronous resources made mental health resources more accessible because they allow students to use them based on their schedules. 

“The removal of a scheduling barrier makes the appeal and access to these practices better for students to try out,” she said.

As Dartmouth approaches the possibility of a more normal term this summer and fall, mental health resources will be offered in a hybrid format, allowing for both in-person and virtual availability, Barthelmes and Kim said. Both agreed that having a hybrid format allows students to take advantage of these resources, appealing to those who want an in-person interaction and those who want to use these resources from the comfort of their rooms.

“Our primary goal is to work with our students and our campus partners to experiment with what the right mixture of in person, virtual, synchronous and asynchronous offerings feel best for our community and serves them in this moment,” Barthelmes said.

Kim noted that despite the challenges students have faced this year, the increased demand for mental health resources is encouraging, especially due to the stigma that exists around mental health.

“I am pretty proud of Dartmouth students for actively searching for mental health resources, especially because a lot of our students come from cultures where it's discouraged to seek out mental health,” he said. “So taking that first step is always a very brave thing to do.” 

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