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

Meet Ithaca College’s New Counseling Director

Brian Petersen took over as the new director of Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services last September. He sat down with The Sophie Fund to discuss his position and plans.

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TSF: How do you describe your job?

Brian Petersen: I supervise all of our programs and interventions with students as well as work with our counselors to help them enact our model of care. I also represent the Counseling Center on campus-wide task force and committee projects related to Mental Health and Wellness on campus.

TSF: What led you to Ithaca College?

Brian Petersen: I was the associate director for the Counseling Center at Pace University in New York City. I managed the day-to-day provision of intake and outreach services and participated in our pre-doctoral internship program in Health Psychology as a clinical supervisor. I worked there for 12 years. Ithaca offers me an opportunity to continue working in a university/college counseling role. I wanted to work at a smaller school due to the focus on creating a coherent community and Ithaca College has that reputation. I am originally from Brockport, New York, so I also am happy to have the opportunity to return to central-western New York.

TSF: Do you have specific interests?

Brian Petersen: I am interested in working with performing artists on their personal relationship to/experience of their craft and how that intersects with their identity. I am committed to suicide prevention and education. I also have an interest in parapsychology. My doctoral dissertation was on interviewing people about their experiences of the paranormal in the context of grief and bereavement. I really enjoy working with young adults on the creation of existential meaning in life.

TSF: What is your favorite thing about CAPS?

Brian Petersen: We have a very talented and creative staff who are committed to helping students achieve both their personal and academic goals.  It is nice to work with colleagues who truly care about what they do.

TSF: What is your least favorite thing, or what you most want to improve? 

Brian Petersen: Our services are in high demand and not all students can be seen for long-term therapy. We offer a wide range of services and interventions including Let’s Talk, our Toolbox Skills groups, group therapy, and coping skills education, and we try to match clients with the best solution to what they want to work on. For students that want long-term therapy, that can be frustrating though we will help to find a referral off-campus to a therapist with whom they can work for the full time they are at Ithaca.

TSF: Where do you see CAPS going in the future?

Brian Petersen: We are currently in the process of integrating more with healthcare services at Ithaca College. The goal is to allow students to experience holistic care of both physical and mental health needs. I would also like to increase our visibility on campus through a year-long schedule of outreach events. We are happy to work with faculty/staff/students on specific outreach projects related to mental health and overall wellness, especially around the issue of self-care.

TSF: What is your opinion about the current mental health situation in the Ithaca College community?

Brian Petersen: I think students at Ithaca are hard-working and this can create a lot of pressure to perform. With that comes stress and anxiety, two of the main reasons that students utilize our services. We also see students who are having difficulty transitioning to college and early negative experiences can create a lot of self-doubt. We see approximately 20 percent of the student body for some form of intervention each year and this is a substantial number of students. I do find that more and more students are coming to college with a high degree of knowledge and experience with mental health treatment  and they are often very informed consumers of our services.

TSF: What is the importance of mental health?

Brian Petersen: I think our mental health is the foundation through which we create meaning and connection in life. When we feel mentally healthy, we have the courage to engage with life. When we struggle, we disengage and then isolate.

TSF: Anything you’re working on right now that you can share?

Brian Petersen: I would like to create a more sustained outreach focus on suicide prevention and education so that all members of the Ithaca College community can notice and assist others who are feeling hopeless and disconnected. Very small interventions can yield life-saving results.

TSF: What do you think Ithaca College could do to help the stigma that still exists on this campus? 

Brian Petersen: I appreciate an interview like this as it allows me to be public about what CAPS and the university are doing to prioritize mental wellness. I feel that the administration at Ithaca College is truly committed to creating a community that destigmatizes mental illness or distress. The President [Shirley M. Collado] has spoken openly about her commitment and I think that has a real impact on allowing others to openly acknowledge and talk about difficult topics. I, personally, hope to reach out to students who feel marginalized or categorized at Ithaca College and I hope to meet with student groups and leaders over the spring semester. I just started at Ithaca College in September and I feel I am steadily gaining the knowledge and connections I need to begin to be proactive with this goal.

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

Sexual Assault Survivors and Allies

Hope Gardner, a junior at Ithaca College, found herself spiraling downward after being sexually assaulted in 2018. She could hardly eat or sleep for days. But she soon turned her personal traumatic experience into a passionate cause: to change the conversation around sexual assault on the Ithaca College campus and in the wider Ithaca community.

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Sydney Muraoka, Hope Gardner, and Sobeida Rosa

Gardner, along with the support of colleagues and encouragement of friends, established IC Strike, a student organization that seeks justice for assault survivors and provides them with tangible support. The group is on a mission to empower assault victims and break the stigma around the issue.

“I was failed by the justice system and was feeling very helpless,” Gardner said in an interview about her inspiration for launching IC Strike. “I was frustrated by the lack of resources. I felt like I needed to find some sort of action that I could do in order to continue healing, so I approached a couple of friends with my idea for this organization and was immediately met with widespread support and interest from everyone I talked to.”

Gardner is president of IC Strike. Alongside Vice President Sydney Muraoka, and Treasurer Sobeida Rosa, she is building the organization by creating a network of survivors and allies. IC Strike carried out numerous programs and fundraisers in the fall 2019 semester. It sponsored a talk by Associate Professor Paula Ioanide on alternative forms of justice for survivors of assault. On December 11, it hosted an end of semester banquet to present funds and toiletries the group collected in support of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, an organization that aids sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

“My goal is that IC Strike will change the narrative on campus about sexual assault survivorship and allyship, helping survivors to regain a sense of agency,” Gardner explained. “My hope is that we will create a brave space where we can challenge the status quo, the stigma, and the belief that survivors need to be quiet about their experiences.”

Gardner believes that the space created by IC Strike can be helpful for survivors as they process the trauma of their assault.

“It can affect your self-image, your ability to be intimate, and how you live your day to day life,” she said. “I was barely able to eat or sleep for days. I found myself in a downward spiral due to PTSD, anxiety, depression. The effects of assault do not go away once the attack is over, and it’s vital that we offer support and resources for survivors, helping them however we can in adjusting to their new normal.”

For Muraoka, challenging the status quo includes reforming Ithaca College’s judicial system for handling sexual assault cases according to federal law. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 protects students from sexual harassment and violence and requires schools to handle assault allegations.

Gardner commented that many students believe the judicial system at IC is severely lacking and in turn re-traumatizing for victims while yielding few positive results. This can be extremely damaging to students’ physical and mental health, she said.

“I know people who have had to switch out of courses that are vital to their majors because the person who assaulted them was in that same class,” she said. “Not feeling safe on campus can have an incredibly negative affect on survivors’ mental and physical well-being, as well as academic performance.”

Gardner and Muraoka are hopeful. They have confidence in Linda Koenig, Ithaca College’s Title IX coordinator, who they believe goes “above and beyond” for students. They are closely watching the administration’s actions to hire a new assistant director for Judicial Affairs, who chairs Conduct Review Boards for cases of alleged sexual misconduct and serves as a member of the Title IX SHARE Advisory Committee and Policy, Procedure, and Practice Committee.

“We need someone who knows Title IX and has proper training in areas such as dealing with victims of trauma, including sexual assaults and domestic violence,” said Muraoka. “We hope to help see things improve for students that come forward in the future.

Campus rape and domestic violence cases steadily increased from 2016, according to the Ithaca College Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report released in October. Reported rape cases on campus rose from eight in 2016 and 11 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

A 2017 Campus Climate Research Study survey of students, faculty, and staff reported that 15 percent of respondents experienced “unwanted sexual conduct,” and 3 percent experienced “unwanted sexual contact” defined as rape, assault, or fondling.

Lara Hamburger, Campus Educator at the Advocacy Center, commended IC Strike’s work.

“Groups like IC Strike create space for survivors and allies to create meaningful change on their campus and beyond,” Hamburger said. “They create an environment where folks can speak out against violence while having a real impact on their community.”

She added: “While still a very new club at Ithaca College, IC Strike has already done great work. They’ve shown their solidarity to survivors in the community by organizing a toiletries drive for the Advocacy Center, and raised funds for our organization. Groups like these have great symbolic value as well. They serve to break the silence and isolation around these issues, and take a public stand so that their classmates and colleagues know that sexual violence won’t be tolerated on their campus.”

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

Get a Cupcake Button!

Student organizations are fanning out across Ithaca to support this year’s “Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign” organized by The Sophie Fund, which will hand over all donations to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County.

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Students will be tabling at GreenStar Natural Foods Market, on college campuses, and other locations around town, collecting donations in exchange for a colorful button featuring a painting of a cupcake. The campaign is held in conjunction with the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest, which will be held in the Ithaca Commons on Saturday, October 19.

“We are honored to designate the Advocacy Center as the recipient for this year’s Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign,” said Scott MacLeod, a co-founder of The Sophie Fund. “The Advocacy Center does incredibly valuable work in our community, fighting sexual assault and domestic violence and providing essential support to victims of abuse.”

Last year’s cupcake button campaign raised $1,367.50, which was given to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County.

Student groups participating in the 2019 campaign include:

—Active Minds at Ithaca College

—Active Minds at Ithaca High School

—Cornell University student organizations: Cornell Minds Matter; Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter; Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity; PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health); and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis senior honor society

Image caption: Detail from Evolution (2009), a painting by Sophie Hack MacLeod