College Counseling in a Pandemic

This is not what Brian Petersen imagined when he came to Ithaca College to become director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services in the fall of 2019. His old boss at Pace University told him that he won’t really know a school until he’s worked there for at least an academic year. Petersen set out to experience Ithaca’s ebb and flow through the changing seasons, but then the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic forced the school to close the campus and move to online instruction.

Brian Petersen, director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at Ithaca College

Yet, Petersen stresses, Ithaca College’s counseling services have remained open for business. Not only that, he adds, due to increased staffing and reduced demand on campus, CAPS has not maintained a waiting list for appointments since fall 2019.

“I think the pandemic has forced everybody to assess how well we do in taking care of ourselves,” Petersen said. “And some students may have discovered that they’re more resilient than they thought they were.”

Due to the campus closure, everything from individual therapy sessions to drop-in groups have operated virtually through Zoom teleconference meetings.

The 12-person CAPS clinical staff will extend its telehealth services into the Spring 2021 semester even as the campus reopens to practice social distancing as a means of reducing exposure to coronavirus. A CAPS counselor will be present on campus at all times for crisis interventions.

While demand for services is expected to increase as students return to campus, during the pandemic new client intakes at CAPS have been down approximately 20 percent. Petersen said this was probably partly due to students utilizing hometown support services rather than relying on CAPS. The decreased demand, however, has enabled CAPS counselors to work with students individually for longer periods of time.

Utilization of Let’s Talk, a virtual drop-in service that offers confidential consultations with a CAPS counselor without an appointment, fell off 50 percent. The pandemic also saw a fall in demand for Toolbox support groups; utilization dropped by around 20 percent for the Anxiety Toolbox group, and a toolbox for social skills and communication was not utilized at all. Due to reduced demand CAPS scaled back the number of groups focused on body image and eating issues from two to one.

CAPS responded to the campus closure with an innovation called Connection & Health Through Text Support (CHATTS), where students connect to a counselor on Zoom but with video and audio turned off and only the chat function enabled. Each session of this group service sees an average of six to eight people.

The CAPS website also provides a self-reporting mental health screening tool call MindWise that allows students do their own check-ins and receive immediate feedback. Nancy Reynolds, director of the Health Promotion Center Program, has posted apps on the website to help students with sleep and nutritional needs.

Additionally, the CAPS website has a wealth of resources. It includes contact information so that students can reach the people of CAPS. Brandi Riker and Brittany McCown, the front desk administrators, remain available by phone to guide students through the process and explain the levels of services that CAPS offers.

CAPS experienced some difficulty reaching those students who remained outside New York State with remote counseling due to geographical restrictions imposed by counseling licensing. Initially, many states allowed services across state lines with little problem or paperwork. But starting with the fall semester, many states rescinded permissions.

CAPS holds a handful of licenses in other states, including California, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts. For others, the CAPS team has kept up with databases managed by other schools such as the University of Texas at Austin to obtain temporary licenses whenever possible. CAPS will always provide crisis intervention services for Ithaca College students wherever they may be.

“If a student wants counseling from us and they’re in a state where we’re just not able to get the licensing that’s needed, then we can provide consultation services and then help them find local providers in their area,” Petersen said. “But one thing I want to be clear about is that no matter what state a student is in, we can still provide consultation services. So we can do an initial assessment. We can do the Let’s Talk and the Toolbox groups because those aren’t considered clinical groups.”

CAPS expanded its outreach efforts by building more connections than ever before across the campus community. It has created relationships with the departments of Athletics and Recreational Athletics, Housing and Residential Life, the Center of Ideas, and the five schools of Ithaca College, among others.

The CAPS team wants faculty members in every department and major to have direct access to someone in the counseling center. That enables them to bring in CAPS representatives for informational class presentations and to consult someone about students who made need CAPS services. Every CAPS counselor has been assigned two or three liaison relationships on campus, Petersen said.

Petersen noted a decrease in the number of first year students utilizing CAPS services compared to a typical semester. “A lot of first student first year students use CAPS, because they’re dealing with adjustment issues like homesickness, social anxiety, and adapting to being in college,” he said. “And because we didn’t have them on campus this year, those adjustment issues have sort of been pushed off. I anticipate [this] semester we’ll see more because they’ll be here.”

As a consequence of CAPS counseling services have been mainly utilized by upperclassmen, notably seniors experiencing anxiety about jobs and graduation.

“Covid has really impacted people’s confidence about what comes next,” said Petersen. “And so, juniors that are looking for internships for senior year and seniors that are looking to step out into a job have a higher than normal level of anxiety about what comes next, and how they’re going to negotiate it. And the other impact of all of this, besides the job anxiety, is the lack of social connectedness and the idea that you want to leave college with some good solid social connections. We’ve all been remote for so long now that it’s harder to feel that way.”

—By Nicole Brokaw

Nicole Brokaw is a senior at Ithaca College majoring in Cinematography and Photography and in Writing