Why This Professor Cares about Student Mental Health

Ten to 15 students a day would come around to the Muller Faculty Center office of Derek Adams to discuss African American literature and ask questions about assignments. Then the Covid-19 pandemic forced Ithaca College classes online and turned the professor’s office hours into Zoom calls as well. Only a couple students a week showed up after office hours went virtual.

Adams regretted the lost mentoring time, but he had an even greater concern: his students’ mental health. A professor who cares deeply about student wellbeing, Adams uses office hours to keep an eye on how his students are doing.

“I don’t think it takes a license to actively listen, or to be open minded and listen to what somebody has to share,” said Adams, an associate professor of English who came to Ithaca College in 2012. “That’s something we should all be able to do. That’s just a very human thing that we do.”

Professors can often be the first to notice if a student is struggling with their mental health. On the first day of classes, Adams addresses students with three ice-breaker questions that demonstrate how he incorporates their wellbeing as a priority in his teaching: What is something you want to take from the class? What is something you’re willing to give to it? What is something we should know about you to get to a place where we can do the work that we need to do?

From there, Adams strives to create a classroom community with strong student connections that he believes benefits their mental health. For example, he requires students to learn each other’s names and encourages them to address each other as such in classroom discussions.

“I think, the better the state [my mental health] is in, the more I retain from what my students share with me, the more I retain from what I’m reading and what I’m conveying, the better I’m able to make connections between things,” Adams said. “And so, I just imagined that if that was true for me, it would be true for students as well, so I wanted to make that a core part of my pedagogy.”

A caring community in which students are allowed to feel vulnerable facilitates a greater understanding of literature, Adams believes. “I don’t know that we will ever get to the level of instruction and transmission of knowledge and the sharing of information that we want to get to without at least acknowledging that mental health is a core part of our experience,” he said.

But after the pandemic hit, Adams’s classroom community became more difficult to build in a Zoom gathering. The casual chatter before and after class—about things in the news, or popular culture—largely disappeared. “There’s just something about being in person that I think makes students feel more free to share those things,” he said. “Without those, it was harder to establish that kind of bond with my students.”

In response, Adams tried out some new ideas to rebuild his classroom community. He asked his students to address a letter to someone they trusted and cared about, exploring current events and how they felt about them. As they shared their letters with the Zoom class, Adams felt a better connection to his students and to the state of their mental health.

“Just giving students the platform to do that helped cultivate that sense of community that I’ve been able to hit on in my in-person classes for so many years,” Adams said. “I was learning to do this for the first time online.”

Adams also made clear that he is sensitive to obstacles in online learning and has adjusted expectations accordingly. He reminds students to prioritize their well-being and gives them pep talks. “Look at what you’re doing right now,” he tells his students. “How incredible is it that, in the middle of the pandemic, you can pick yourself up?”

Adams understands that many students struggle to be open with their professors, wary to admit they are having trouble keeping up. He believes that’s why it is essential for professors to pay attention to their students’ mental health. Although he is not a clinician, he can offer an empathetic ear. And, when he sees a cause for greater concern, he refers students to other resources such as Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

CAPS Director Brian Petersen agreed that everyone on campus can help improve the mental health climate.

“Mental health support for students is the responsibility of the entire campus community and Ithaca College is committed to creating a campus-wide culture that is focused on mental wellness,” Petersen explained.

Petersen believes that faculty members should be formally trained to recognize warning signs for distress and even suicide. Currently they are provided with a resource guide for directing students to support services on and off campus.

 “Our goal is to help faculty feel comfortable with this kind of intervention,” said Petersen. “We also talk with faculty about boundaries and how to be helpful without being too invested or psychologically or emotionally enmeshed with the student.”

Adams is looking forward to seeing students in his daily office hours again. But he doesn’t want to forget the lessons he’s learned about community building during the pandemic  “Whatever happens from this point forward, I would like there to be a continued focus—a renewed focus—on mental health and well being,” he said.

—By Lorelei Horrell

Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.

Sleepless in Ithaca

Instead of falling asleep at 10 p.m., Daniel, a junior psychology major at Ithaca College, has just woken up. He was too tired to stay awake in the afternoon, but now he won’t be able to get back to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. Because he won’t get enough sleep at night, tomorrow he’ll be tired again in the afternoon.

The Fountains at Ithaca College

College students are notorious for their unconventional sleep schedules. The transition to online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic has merged school and personal time, meaning even more students are having difficulty getting enough sleep at night and staying awake during the day. The Ithaca College Center for Health Promotion hosts the THRIVE @ IC Wellness Coaching program, which includes one-on-one sessions and group workshops for building resiliency to help students address these sleep difficulties and other health concerns. According to Program Director Nancy Reynolds, a Health Education Specialist and National Board-certified health and wellness coach, anyone can start taking steps today to improve their sleep cycle and overall wellness.

A good night’s sleep might be hard to get for some, experts agree, but it’s easy to define. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults college-aged and up need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep is generally better without frequent awakenings and when you keep a consistent routine, waking up and going to bed at similar times every day.

Reynolds points out signs of a poor sleep schedule that may sound familiar to college students.

“Do you feel well-rested in the morning?” Reynolds asks. “What’s your fatigue level during the day? Because that’s another marker of if you’re not getting enough sleep or a good quality of sleep. You’re going to notice during the day that you’re feeling groggy, maybe you’re falling asleep in class, you’re having to take naps every day because you’re so tired.”

It’s a stereotype that college students choose to stay up past midnight and sleep into the afternoon, but many students like Daniel, who requested that his full name not be published, really do have difficulty getting up and staying awake.

According to Reynolds, various aspects of student culture contribute to unhealthy sleep schedules. When students spend time on phones and laptops late into the night, she noted, blue light from these devices prevents the brain from releasing sleep chemicals. Reynolds said that many students also struggle with time management, especially when they’re juggling a lot of responsibilities. That can force students to stay up late to complete all their tasks or assignments, she said. Reynolds also points to a strange element of college culture in which students “compete” to be the busiest or the most sleep deprived—which some students dub the “Sleep Olympics.”

The switch to online learning has further complicated student sleep problems, Reynolds said. Students face even more hours of screen time, and the line between schoolwork and rest of life is blurred. It’s not unusual for students to log in to a class on Zoom and see several classmates attending from their beds. Reynolds explained that taking online classes from the same room all day may be another reason students are struggling with sleep.

“We’re not getting variety in our day in terms of social connections and moving around to different environments—walking around campus, going to the library, hanging out in different students’ rooms,” she said. “We’re not getting the same amount of stimulation that our brains need to make our bodies ready for sleep at night.”

Along with lack of stimulation, Covid-19 has introduced new stressors, such as social, financial, and health-related worries, that may keep students up at night, Reynolds said. She noted that many people are coping with feelings of grief for those they have lost to Covid-19.

Reynolds said that sleep and mental health are strongly interconnected. Bad moods, low energy, and difficulty in focusing due to lack of sleep take a toll on mental health.

Reynolds explained that sleep cycles necessary to maintaining mental wellness can be interrupted for many reasons, one of which is substance use.

“Some students are self-medicating with cannabis,” she said, explaining how students use marijuana to help them fall asleep at night. “The downside is we know scientifically that THC and cannabis prevent us from going into REM sleep, which is dream sleep. If you don’t get dream sleep on a continual basis, your mood may suffer.”

Struggling with mental health can cause poor sleep, and in turn poor sleep can make it difficult to focus on one’s mental health, Reynolds said. Anxiety specifically feeds into this cycle, as racing thoughts keep people awake, and the resulting poor sleep causes them to feel like they can’t handle challenges in their lives, she added.

Daniel agreed that the two were related, saying, “When my sleep schedule is off, I’m often anxious about class work, since I don’t have time or energy to get it done.”

It can seem like an endless cycle. At Wellness Coaching, Reynolds focuses on finding a first step that can help students move forward. This may be anything from mindfulness to a new exercise routine.

“You have to go at it from both aspects—improving the sleep and reducing anxiety,” Reynolds explained.

All aspects of health are related, which Wellness Coaching illustrates through a “Resilience Pyramid” graphic. The bottom building blocks of the pyramid are eating well, “balancing substance use,” moving your body, and getting good sleep. All of these elements are essential for building up personal health and moving up to higher goals on the pyramid such as connecting with others and adopting a growth mindset.

In a first visit with Wellness Coaching, students typically assess their own strengths and challenges on the pyramid. They can then start finding solutions. Wellness Coaching is currently available virtually at no cost for all Ithaca College students. Reynolds encourages students to reach out, even if they only need assistance for one session. (Email healthpromotion@ithaca.edu for more information.)

Reynolds said there are several first steps that a student can take today to getting their sleep cycle back on track. For example, she said, take the time to go for a walk outside, allow yourself breaks between classes, and stay connected with the important people in your life. Be mindful of activities that may be disrupting your sleep cycle, such as upsetting media, substance use, and long naps, Reynolds advised. She also recommends establishing a nightly wind-down routine, a period of 30 to 60 minutes before bed when you shut off your devices and do something quiet like stretching or listening to a podcast.

As the semester nears an end, Daniel is feeling hopeful. With three of his five classes now meeting in person, he’s having less difficulty separating work and leisure environments. He’s also monitoring his afternoon habits, trying to avoid  too-long naps. Daniel’s latest report: the sleep cycle is getting back on track.

—By Lorelei Horrell

Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.

Fighting Sexual Assault on Campus

Sexual harassment and assault are worldwide problems. IC Strike is an Ithaca College student organization formed in 2019 and dedicated to education, action, and allyship surrounding sexual assault. We believe it is our duty to inform the Ithaca community because sexual assault and violence is, more often than not, swept under the rug.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, meaning you regularly interreact with survivors of sexual assault every day.

There are differences in direct and indirect sexual assault prevention. The opportunity to distract people involved in a dangerous situation can be a safer way to provide a friend or a stranger a way out of an uncomfortable encounter. Asking directly or getting help from a figure of authority like a Resident Assistant, campus safety officer, or calling 911 can also save people from potentially traumatic situations.

Additionally, it’s important to create safe spaces to talk about uncomfortable situations. This can help individuals so that they don’t have to take on the big issues alone by helping to create safety and support networks for those that need them. Of course, education is at the core of sexual assault prevention. Education helps to create a safe space where conversations can be held about traditionally taboo topics such as consent and sexual violence.

April 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. There are many campaigns, some with different themes, designed to share information around sexual assault awareness and prevention. These campaigns stem from historical and intersectional branches of activism that continue to show how anyone can be affected by this issue.

IC Strike partnered with The Sophie Fund and the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County to launch an education campaign on social media during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We are trying to reach as many people as possible to educate them on our core issues.

IC Strike was created as a response to our founder’s experiences navigating the legal and health systems following a assault. Like her, many of our members seek validation and answers to questions surrounding their own experiences. As an organization, we strive to fulfill the needs of survivors and to educate our community to prevent the same trauma from occurring to others.

These issues of sexual violence affect everyone, and we believe that facilitating a safe and respectful space for learning and navigating tough conversations within a college community leads to personal growth and social progress. 

IC Strike adamantly believes in the power of education and communication. Our society struggles to have conversations about sex, trauma, and sexual violence. In breaking the social stigma surrounding these topics, people are able to learn more about themselves and the society they live in. The social gag rule on sexual assault fosters ignorance and perpetuates harmful behavior and values. By equipping students with the facts and the vocabulary to discuss these issues, productive conversations can be had and stigmas can be broken.

By Carmen Enge, Lindsay Sayer, and Julia Siegal

Carmen Enge, Lindsay Sayer, and Julia Siegal are students at Ithaca College and serve, respectively, as treasurer and co-presidents of IC Strike

READ: Sexual Assault Awareness Month

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

Title IX Town Hall @ Ithaca College

The U.S. Department of Education issued new Title IX regulations last spring that went into effect in August. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 mandate that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

However, the new Title IX regulations contain provisions jeopardizing students’ rights to an education free of discrimination by making the reporting process for student survivors of sexual assault and harassment even more complicated, exclusionary, and potentially harmful.

IC Strike, an on-campus activist organization at Ithaca College dedicated to addressing issues pertaining to sexual assault, sent a letter on August 3 to the Ithaca College administration in response to growing student concerns about the new regulations.

IC Strike called on Ithaca College to commit to eight practices that would ensure that the new regulations do not have a negative impact on our student body and the Ithaca community, and that Ithaca College’s Title IX policies and the judicial process continue to be student-centered. In a statement issued August 17, the Title IX office addressed six of the letter’s eight demands. The two unaddressed demands were maintaining a time limit of 60 calendar days for the completion of investigations and changing the degrees of sexual abuse to match those of New York State.

IC Strike is hosting a Town Hall on Title IX on Thursday, September 24 at 12 noon to discuss IC Strike’s letter, and how our community’s needs are going to be prioritized and addressed in light of the Department of Education’s new regulations. Panelists will include the Title IX coordinator and a Judicial Affairs representative from Ithaca College, and representatives from the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County and IC Strike.

Click here to register to attend the Town Hall and submit questions. Participants can also submit questions during the event.

Text of the IC Strike letter, addressed to the Ithaca College president, provost, and Title IX coordinator:

On May 6th, the Department of Education issued its Final Rule changing the Title IX obligations of all schools receiving federal funding. Consistent with the harmful rhetoric and anti-survivor ideology Secretary DeVos has brought to the Department, the Rule contains dangerous provisions that go against best practices, tip the scales against survivors, and jeopardize tens of thousands of students’ civil right to an education free from discrimination.

This rule will have devastating consequences for students and their families. Specifically, the rule will require schools to only investigate the most extreme forms of harassment and assault, require schools to ignore most violence that occurs off-campus, require live hearings and direct cross-examination of complainants and respondents by each of their chosen representatives, and allow needless delays in the completion of Title IX investigations. Altogether, these changes will discourage survivors from coming forward and utilizing the Title IX process at their schools, resulting in rampant sexual violence going unaddressed.

We, as students and community members, are calling on Ithaca College to uphold the civil rights of all students on campus. Multiple sections within the rule give schools discretion to choose how policies are implemented. We urge Ithaca College to commit to taking sexual violence seriously by choosing the options that would create the least harm for student survivors.

Below, we have listed our call to the University, which asks for your clear commitment to maintaining the safest and fairest policies that are legal under the Final Rule.

We, students and alumni of Ithaca College call on the University to commit to:

1. Establishing the preponderance of the evidence as the standard of evidence in all campus sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination cases​. Preponderance of the evidence is the only standard that values the education of both complainants and respondents equally.

2. [Maintaining/establishing] a time limit of sixty calendar days for the completion of sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination cases, with exceptions only for substantial extenuating circumstances.​ Lengthy investigations are emotionally taxing on survivors, often causing students to drop-out before their cases are complete. Drawn-out timelines are bad for complainants and respondents alike, leaving them uncertain of where things stand with their schools.

3. Continuing to respond promptly to reports of and carrying out existing investigations into sexual misconduct during the global health crisis. ​The new rule makes clear that Title IX processes may continue remotely in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The rights of student complainants and respondents alike hinge on schools maintaining their commitment to prompt and equitable investigations even during these unprecedented times.

4. Guaranteeing all students access to reasonable interim measures regardless of where or when the violence or discrimination they experienced took place. ​The serious effects of violence and discrimination merit accommodations whether a student was harmed on-campus, on a study-abroad trip, or in their private apartment.

5. Creating and following sexual misconduct procedures for investigating otherwise not covered instances of off-campus and study abroad violence. ​While the rule does not allow formal Title IX investigations of off-campus violence, schools can still create separate sexual misconduct policies that ensure students can report off-campus violence. Whether you are raped in your on-campus dorm room or in another country, having to see your rapist in the class equally interrupts your education.

6. Changing the degrees of sexual abuse to match that of ​New York State’s​.

7. Barring the use of informal resolution mechanisms including but not limited to mediation in cases of sexual assault, rape, dating, and domestic violence, and stalking that is an extension of such violence. ​It is widely agreed upon that mediation is an inappropriate and even unsafe measure in these types of situations.

8. Following the Department of Education’s rescinded ​2016 guidance​ on protecting LGBTQ+ students in order to ensure all students have equal access to a safe learning environment, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

We call on the University to issue a written public statement declaring its commitment to these eight policies by AUGUST 14th​.

As dedicated members of this community, we believe in holding our institution to the highest standards. With a federal government that is failing students, it is up to institutions to assume leadership in defending our education by protecting our civil rights. We look forward to seeing Ithaca College issue its public statement in the coming days.

—By Hope Gardner

Hope Gardner is president and co-founder of IC Strike. She is a senior at Ithaca College majoring in Spanish and Culture & Communication