When the world has been turned on its head with a pandemic, it makes sense that mental health services would be in even greater demand. But for the staff at Oregon State University’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) the obvious need to continue and even enhance student services coincided with having to provide them all remotely.

So how does one provide safe, private, supportive counseling remotely? It turns out the answer is the same technology that most OSU faculty are depending on for remote teaching, Zoom.

“We’re providing all of our counseling and therapy sessions via Zoom, which is the most private platform that’s available,” said Bonnie Hemrick, assistant director of mental health promotion with CAPS. While it wasn’t easy to pivot to remote counseling, Hemrick said the staff has been able to move all their resources online, from individual therapy to group counseling to their popular single-session clinics. And they’re looking at drop-in workshops and other offerings as well.

“We’ve seen this as a great opportunity to reach students where they’re at,” Hemrick said. “The new remote teaching tools are things that we’ve considered for years anyway and just didn’t have the bandwidth or the impetus to move forward. And now within the last two weeks we’ve really re-envisioned the way we reach students. This may end up being a great thing, because in the future we’ll be back on campus but we’ll be continuing these virtual aspects because we’ll have them figured out.”

As they reach the halfway mark of spring term, Hemrick said CAPS is seeing fewer students than normal, although the numbers are increasing as the weeks progress. She said that staff members are hearing that students are feeling overwhelmed with adjusting to the new reality, are struggling to find private places to take part in remote counseling, and generally aren’t sure what resources are available. Those who are taking part in counseling sessions are facing a number of issues, including difficulty focusing, low motivation, loneliness, difficulty in adjusting to living at home again, overall stress, worry about the future, and struggles with time management, plus many other issues surrounding COVID-19.

The goal of CAPS staff is to make mental health services feel as ‘normal’ as possible for students, Hemrick said. One way to do that is by providing students with tips to help navigate remote learning and sheltering-in-place, two of the stresses surrounding COVID-19,

“Try to maintain your normal routine as much as possible, setting an alarm to wake up, eating regular meals, going to sleep at a normal time, and making sure you have time to do self-care,” Hemrick said. “Consider what your strengths are. You’ve likely gotten through challenging times before, so what helped you go through those? What strategies did you use? What coping skills did you use?”

CAPS counselor Mark Davis agreed that routine is essential to coping with the current situation.

“It can be easy to sleep in everyday and go days without showering. In the short term that can be kind of nice, like a relief, but over time, getting out of routines can lead to a sense of listlessness or increase depression,” Davis said. “If you have a lot of assignments, set a regular time for work hours, building in breaks, to give you structure in a situation that is absent of structure.”

Even putting on normal clothes is helpful, he said. “Pay attention to how you’re dressing. It’s possible to be in pajamas all the time, but psychologically it’s helpful to don the same kind of clothing as if you were going out. It puts you in a psychological state that you are ‘showing up’ in that way.”

He also encourages getting outside if possible, and building in time to exercise, even if it’s watching YouTube instructional videos. And don’t just focus on academics, even though it’s important to make time for that as well.

“Try to find self-care activities that are healthy for you - hobbies, relaxing activities, a puzzle, coloring a mandala, cooking or whatever your hobby is, or some projects you have around the house you want to devote some time to,” he said. “Now is the time to do that.

Taking breaks is also essential, Hemrick said, especially now that people are using the same space for work, home and play. It’s also important to take breaks from news and social media, and build in time to meditate, stretch and do breathing exercises to connect back to the present. Connecting to others, even virtually, is also essential.

“One of the most important tips in general is making sure you’re continuing to connect with others, especially talking to people you trust about your concerns and how you’re feeling, and checking in with others and making sure they feel ok,” Hemrick said. “Community and self-care is going to be really important right now. Give yourself grace and patience.”

CAPS is also providing suggestions to faculty about how to support their students during this time.

“We’ve come up with a document that can help faculty support students virtually,” Heimrich said. “It’s really focused around a culture of care. It explains how you can check in with students to see if they have their basic needs met, or by starting every meeting asking them how they’re doing and if they need anything. Make sure you’re encouraging flexibility in their work, because stress and the life circumstances are going to mean that productivity may not be as high as it normally is.”

To find out more about CAPS remote offerings, see: https://counseling.oregonstate.edu/

~ Theresa Hogue