MHSC Interviews Dr. Bowers, Associate Director of the GT Counseling Center

Mack Bowers, PhD
Associate Director for Training for the Georgia Tech Counseling Center

Interviewers: Tony Wang & Jordan McKinney

Date: 6/24/2020

Question 1:

What are some of the top problems students bring to a college counseling center? What does our Counseling Center do to help students address these problems?

Dr. Bowers:

The most common, presenting problems we see at Tech, or at least the three big ones, are anxiety, depression and general relationship problems whether that be conflicts with romantic partners, roommates, family members, or even professors. Those are the three more common presenting concerns. I think especially at Tec,  anxiety generally ranks slightly above depression, although that’s not the case at every other school. In fact, the other schools I was at, depression was the common one, but at Tech standards and pressures are high, as well as expectations, so I think that’s why anxiety tends to be a more presenting concern over the others. But then it really covers the whole gamut in terms of the people we see. Everything from eating disorders to substance abuse to traumatic events, but the most are generally anxiety and depression, along with relationship concerns.

We have a step chair model, so we offer a whole range of services based on what the student’s need is and what they have. Sort of at the least extreme, or lowest equiniti level, we have preventive things such as workshops on stress management, how to study for tests, or how to manage relationships with family and romantic partners. These workshops are psychological based, and we offer them through generating them on our own or in response to the community whether that be a professor in a certain class asking for study strategies or sororities and fraternities inviting us in on how to deal with certain things going on in that community. We also partake in national things such as depression screening day on campus in the student center where people can fill out screening equipment to determine if they have any qualities of depression. 

Moving from that, down the continuum, we also have a peer coaching program. These are Georgia Tech students that go through a training program with us. They provide support and encouragement. We don’t call them peer counselors; we call them peer coaches because they take on a coaching role. That might be what seems to be the most appropriate for the student coming in seeking help. Then we move to group counseling, we do offer a wide range of groups, and group therapy can be more appropriate for certain types of concerns especially. It can be really helpful for all kinds of things like social anxiety, and other types of anxiety based concerns. We also have interpersonal groups where people are able to get close to their group members and facilitate a strong bond and connection with others. Then of course we have individual counseling, which is available as well. Students tend to think that individual counseling is the only thing offered, but we also have a whole range of other things offered in addition. We also do couples counseling as well. These include people who have romantic partners or who are married or just dealing with things that come up with relationships.

Question 2:

What can students expect out of the Counseling Center? (In other words, what makes GT Counseling different from long term counseling and how do the resources at Tech bridge that gap for students?)

Dr. Bowers:

So, as a university counseling center, and this is how many universities are across the country, we’re generally based more on what you would call a ‘brief treatment model’. We don’t pretend to be an inpatient facility, as we don’t take cases that may involve many years of treatment or intensive, highly specialized treatment like a detox center for substance abuse or an intensive treatment program for eating disorders. That’s sort of beyond our scope of practice. We don’t really have the resources to be able to devote to that in an effective way. So, we primarily deal with the kinds of things that can be treated through a brief model. For people that might require more than that, we have an extensive referral database that we maintain, of which we have case management services that are available. Two case managers are included on our staff. They help to facilitate referral to the appropriate level of treatment for people who might require something beyond the scope of what our counseling center can provide. The referral service is not like we’re sending people away, rather it acts as facilitating them to get the appropriate treatment for what their presenting concerns are. And we do follow up and make sure that the connections were effectively made and that they are able to follow through with getting help off campus.

Question 3:

How has working at GT been different than working at the counseling center of other schools?

Dr. Bowers:

Well, I think Georgia Tech is a special, unique place in many ways. The students at Tech are driven, motivated. They are problem solvers and focused on making the world a better place. It’s been a great place for me to work, and the reason I have been here for over 20 years. The other counseling centers I’ve worked at were quite different in some ways because Tech is more stem based, whereas my previous university was a liberal arts school. They were similar in terms of the kind of problems that traditional age college students go through like individuating from their family of origin, developing a sense of themselves, or developing a career path. Those kinds of things were similar in my experience at the various places I’ve worked. But like I said, Tech does have a unique place. We occupy a fairly high visibility spot in the state of Georgia, the southeast, and even in the nation. So, I think there’s more of a spotlight on you and there’s more pressure overall. Are we doing everything we can to make the city a better place? And so, in that way I do really like the mission of the institute and the way it attracts students that are driven to do similar kinds of things to make the world a better place.

Question 4:

Coronavirus Question

What can people staying at home do to keep their minds healthy?

Dr. Bowers:

That’s a great question. Certainly, I would say, at a specific sort of level, there always things that help us manage stress better or manage change better. Things like making sure you get enough sleep, making sure you eat a balanced diet that has a healthy variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains and protein and all that. So you know, the sleeping and the eating thing those are always things you need to be doing. And then exercise of course. Exercise, there are three things that are very important in stress management, and exercise is one of them. So, you know, getting some exercise – you don’t need to be training for a marathon necessarily – but just getting your heart rate up for 20 minutes every day, taking a brisk walk, going on your bicycle, or even doing something like yoga at home. Those types of things are maintenance types of things that are very important. We can do that at home; it doesn’t require interacting with people. YOu can maintain social distancing. You can still take care of yourself in terms of protecting yourself from the virus. Definitely, staying in touch with people. With modern technology, that’s easier to do now than it used to be. So making sure you keep up with your friends and family. Surround yourself virtually with people who are supportive and encouraging to be with. I’ve been playing games on the zoom platform with my nieces and nephews – my son has been really enjoying it as well. So keeping in touch with others is very important. 

Another thing is trying to maintain a positive attitude on things. Sometimes that’s hard to do since a lot of news is bad news, whenever the top news tells you how many people have been diagnosed or died from the virus. But trying to maintain a positive attitude, so maybe limiting how much bad news you hear everyday and focusing on what are the positive, good things in my life, about this time even if it’s not something or somewhere I want to be or doing right now. I’ve really enjoyed this time spent with my sons. They did come home; you know, it’s something that I did not expect I would get. After high school, they left, and they’ll always be off somewhere. So it’s a nice thing to be focusing on; this is a positive aspect that I get to spend time with my boys. And there are other things about self-quarantine as well. You don’t need to deal with traffic. You don’t need to deal with some headaches that come with living in Atlanta. So being able to hold onto that even if at the same time, we are trying to be responsible about concern and care about other people. 

Question 5:

How can students access Counseling Center resources remotely?

Dr. Bowers:

So yeah that’s a good question. We have moved to an online platform. We have moved to an online platform, so we can still meet with clients on the Bluejeans platform. We have put into place; we have implemented systems to maintain confidentiality and privacy through Bluejeans. We still do virtual workshops; you can sign up for those on our website. There is a substantial self help section on our website as well, resources such as relaxation podcasts, meditation podcasts, mindfulness exercises and so on. So there are still a lot of things available to students for managing your mental health and psychological well being. 

In order to set up an appointment, you can go to the GTCare website. GTCare is the entry portal for everybody, and you can set up an appointment to see one of their intake counselors. And then talk to them to be referred onto the counselling center. And we will reach out to you to start therapy and see if you can join the groups available there. 

Personal Questions

Question 1:

What inspired you to go into a profession helping college students?

Dr. Bowers:

Yeah I guess I had an idea I would really like to be a psychologist. It helps have happier lives and things like that. So early on, I was still in high school – I was still young- I decided I wanted to pursue a career in psychology. After I got into undergraduate work and just the whole college scene the whole college atmosphere, such an exciting time of life, people are developing a sense of who they are as individuals. I thought it would be very cool to stay in an environment like this and maybe play a part in helping students navigate that transition from being children living with their parents to adults who function happily in the world. So that is a big part of what I did. 

I did an internship during my doctoral work at the University of Florida and worked in the counseling center. And that was when I thought this was a good fit for me. I had done previous work with children in the community health center. I liked working with children, but I liked working with college students more; it was more rewarding to me. So I am very grateful that I can do that and stay in this arena through the bulk of my career.

Question 2:

What is your favorite Georgia Tech tradition?

Dr. Bowers:

It’s hard to say because there’s so many I like. One thing I like is cars, so I like the Ramblin Wreck. I think it’s cool that part of the Georgia Tech community is the Ramblin Wreck driving around and blowing the horn. And there are so many cool things about Tech; I think it’s very cool that we honor the people that have passed away every year when the whistle blows, I think it’s a real meaningful ceremony; it’s an acknowledgement of people who have been important in our community. I think it’s kinda cool that they still remember a favorite pet that they had with sideways, the little grave they have there. It happened years ago, but people still honor his memory, and we acknowledge that kind of thing. It’s not a typical thing you would have on a college campus, so there are a lot of things about Georgia Tech that I like.  

Question 3:

Do you have any suggestions for how students can take care of their mental health on their own?

Dr. Bowers:

I think that fits in with what I was talking about earlier about taking care of yourself during this time. The important three things about making sure you get enough sleep – most people don’t realize the amount of sleep they need as adults; you really need 9 hours of sleep. People say that “oh I get 7 hours of sleep; I’m really happy about that”. Some people say that they get 5 and they can make it. Yes, you can make it on that, but it’s not really enough. So aiming for good sleep hygiene is really important. This means you go to bed at the same time every night and you wake up the same time every morning and try to have 9 hours in between those periods of time. It will make you feel better; it will make you handle stress better. It will put you in a better disposition to deal with the demands Georgia Tech has. Getting exercise and staying healthy and surrounding yourself with people who are positive influences. Paying attention to your own emotional state. If you are feeling distress or you are feeling intimidated or you are feeling frustrated at things, examine what is the source of that and how can I modify my response to that. Is there any way I can make my life less stressful. 

Question 4:

What are some ways to relax and have fun during this time?

Dr. Bowers:

Gameplaying seems a lot of fun. We learned several new table games. I would recommend Phase 10, I would recommend Quick. I would recommend Ticket to Ride; there are a lot of cool games you can play especially if you are quarantining with members of your family or friends. Another thing is appreciating nature since you have a lot more time to be outdoors now than you normally would. I get to take my dog for a walk every morning. I get up and have one or two meetings. Then I get to walk him down the street. I really do appreciate the outdoors, how pretty the flowers are when they are blooming, what it sounds like to have birds singing in the trees – those sorts of mindful experiences when you are outdoors having a mindful walk as opposed to rushing to get to work. So those are the kinds of things that are important. It is a time to self reflect. I think people have a lot more time alone. So how can I use this time to grow and learn more about myself? I’ve been keeping a corona journal; it’s a journal that I write each evening. It’s a journal that helps remind me what I did today and a reflection of what I come up with since I have more time to myself than I have had in the past. Those are all interesting things to do. 

Student, Sydney Morlan, Interview on Fitness

Sydney Morlan, Georgia Tech Student

Interviewer: Jordan McKinney

Date: 5/24/2020

Question 1:

What motivated you to start doing fitness?

Sydney:

Starting in high school I got really into fitness. I had played golf all throughout high school and was involved in a lot of training programs which Starting in high school I got really into fitness. I had played golf all throughout high school and was involved in a lot of training programs which taught me the science behind doing certain workouts that’d better my golf skills. Once I realized I wasn’t going to be playing golf, I still wanted to focus on working out. At one point my habits became obsessive, and it got unhealthy really quick. I started going down a path that wasn’t good to be going down. My senior year of high school I turned around my mindset and began the journey of finding a good relationship with fitness and eating.

Question 2:

How has the quarantine changed how you work out? What challenges have you faced, and what did you do to overcome them?

Sydney:

Learning that the gym was really closed was super stressful because it was really my safe place and where I had my “me” time. I had gone on this journey for so long to mind my relationship with a healthy lifestyle and finally had found peace with being there. So, starting quarantine, with all of that closing, I was super nervous about being home and using the small amount equipment that was available to me at my home. Really, we only have an old treadmill, my mom’s pair of ankle weights, and one set of small dumbbells, and I had just started my fitness Instagram so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to post any workout videos. But when I was on spring break, I thought to myself that I should try and post a video that’s at home with no equipment. So, I fell in love with this idea of making creative and fun workouts to do. And it’s crazy because I thought my relationship with working out and my health had been healed after my first two years of college, I think the past two months have showed me that working out should not be confined to just four walls of a gym.

Question 3:

Do you like working out alone or with others?

Sydney:

Since I started teaching classes, I’ve really enjoyed working out with others, especially now that I’ve begun Instagram live classes during quarantine. It feels more personal and uplifting because people will send messages that are so encouraging. It encourages me when other people are working hard and seeing results they want to see. At the same time, I’m very much so an introvert, so I tend to exert a ton of energy teaching these big groups of people. I need some time to relax when I teach a lot, like going on walks and listening to podcasts. It’s always a balance between the two.

Question 4:

How does staying active impact your own mental health?

Sydney:

I think staying active is important for everyone’s mental health, including my own. Not only is there so much science behind it with releasing endorphins and chemicals in the brain, but what it all boils down to is our bodies were made to move; that’s what they were created to do. Putting all the health benefits aside (yes, cardio helps your cardiovascular system and decreases your chance of getting cancer and other diseases), the feeling you get after even just spending 20 minutes working out, those 20 minutes are for yourself and you know those 20 minutes you’re not doing anything for anyone else. I think it’s such a great way to get away, get stress off your back, and do something good for you. And when you look at it that way, it can turn your day around.

Question 5:

How does having a balanced diet helped with your mental health and your energy throughout the day?

Sydney:

I think a balanced diet is so important. I actually just released a video on my Instagram about how to have a balanced diet. In today’s world there are so many different diets that people follow in a culture that jumps from diet to diet and workout to workout. People then tend to get frustrated after two weeks of doing a certain diet. Consistency (intermittent fasting, keto, paleo, etc.) and they’ll jump to the next one. I always tell people the diet that’s best for you isn’t a number of calories or limiting a certain food group, it’s about finding foods that make you energized and consistently make your body feel good. So, I think it’s important to find out what diet that may be and practice it now when you have access to a kitchen and all of that stuff. Find what fuels your body and workouts, because everyone will be different.

Question 6:

Who has been your biggest support in starting your fitness page/videos? What has that support meant to you?

Sydney:

I had a friend I went to high school with that started teaching barre our senior year. I went and took her classes and that’s when I started barre. I got really into it and then she mentioned that I should try out teaching. So, I eventually tried it out this semester. It became my favorite part of the week, so that’s how I started out. A huge motivator has been my friends at tech. A lot of them will pass me on the street and say, “Sydney I tried your workout and loved it!” so it’s really cool, especially since quarantine, because people will send pictures of their family doing my workouts.

Question 7:

Are you always motivated to get up and get moving every day? What gets you going on days you might not feel like doing a workout?

Sydney:

Absolutely not. I totally have those days where I don’t want to do anything and not even get out of my bed. And those can be days when I’m struggling internally (mental health wise) or physically am too tired. I think it’s important to find the difference between “you’ve been working hard, and your body deserves rest” or “me going down a spiral of insecurity and basically falling into a trap”. So, when I need rest, I will take a rest. I think I’ve learned in the past couple of months and through my recovery how to create this balance. At the same time, getting up and doing small exercises like yoga or walking really can lift my mood.

Question 8:

What does positive body image mean to you?

Sydney:

So, this is something I’m incredibly passionate about. Again, I think it goes back to the world we live in today with social media. I think it’s human nature to want to strive for perfection and try to fit this image of whatever is your ultimate goal. But in reality, if you look back in history, there are so many different ideal body types that have cycled throughout history every decade. So, I think being body positive is accepting the fact that you will never be completely satisfied with something that comes from an outward appearance and the fact that fitness and nutrition are tools that enable a healthy lifestyle. Accepting the body you’re in and doing the workouts that make you feel good all help you find peace with the body you have. I think it’s tough because it’s hard to say something that’ll resonate for everyone because everyone is dealing with something specific to them, but I think it goes back to eating foods that make you feel good and finding workouts that resonate with you and make you want to keep moving.

Question 9:

What tips do you have for people struggling to get started with being active and eating healthy (living a healthy lifestyle)?

Sydney:

Consistency is a huge tip I have. I always tell people it takes 21 days to break a habit and if you start with 10, that’s already 10 days in the book and 11 more after that. That’s why I wrote the 10-day reset for people to use, because I think the 10 days helps them get started. So, I just challenge people to start small, build it into their routine for 10 days and see how it goes and how it feels. Then try it for another 10 days and you’re closer to building a habit and a routine that is sustainable.

MHSC Interviews Dr. Bradley, Director of the GT Counseling Center

Carla Bradley, PhD
Director of the Georgia Tech Counseling Center

Interviewer: Sophia Martin

Date: 6/17/2020

Question 1: 

What can students expect out of the Counseling Center? In other words, what makes GT Counseling different from long-term counseling services and how do the resources at Tech bridge that gap for students?

Dr. Bradley:

What students can expect is a short-term, problem solving focused approach. We use what’s called a stepped care approach, meaning that we recommend an intensity level (step) of service that best matches the student’s needs.  When a student comes into GT CARE for their assessment, they can expect to leave GT CARE with a personalized plan for how to approach the concern that they walked in the door to discuss.  A student who is referred to the Counseling Center, (because not all students who go to GT CARE are ultimately referred to the Counseling Center, there are many different kinds of mental health and wellness service options on and off campus) they can expect to make use of whichever of our services were recommended.  Recommended services might be things like workshops, skills groups, counseling groups, couples counseling, individual counseling, or case management services. We offer a variety of services and we do our best to meet the individual needs of each student referred to us. 

Usually the course of individual counseling is generally less than a semester and is focused on trying to help resolve the student’s original concern. If it’s something that isn’t resolvable within that time, GT CARE will try to anticipate that possibility and match the student with a longer-term resource. That may also include matching them with the Counseling Center for longer-term group treatment. So, we can provide short-term individual counseling and longer-term group care, as well as many other services.

Question 2:

In your opinion, how has the stigma around mental health and resources on campus negatively impacted student treatment, and how can students reverse this stigma?

Dr. Bradley:

That’s an interesting question!  I think the question may presuppose that there is stigma, and I’d like to clarify that I don’t think stigma exists across the board for everyone. I think some constituencies may hold some ideas about counseling that may not match well with how their peers view people who come to counseling. 

For instance, it’s important to know that what Georgia Tech students tell us (primarily through the Healthy Minds Study) is that the primary reason they forgo counseling when they perceive it may be needed is they become too busy to seek help. The secondary reason is that they are concerned about taking someone else’s spot, which may be another way of saying ‘I’m not sure if my problems rise to the level that would warrant individual counseling.’ And of course, we want every student who has that question to come into GT CARE for an assessment. If a student doesn’t want individual counseling our campus offers many other service options. 

All that being said, I think there is an echo of a negative narrative that has been on campus for several years now, and which just doesn’t match the wealth of mental health and wellness services that Georgia Tech offers.  This narrative may have a large root in the campus tragedy of 2017 and may have been echoed on some communication media, perhaps often by people with no real first-hand knowledge and experience of the breadth and depth of campus resources.  And the Counseling Center can’t really comment on incorrect information that’s perpetuated on social media—it’s not ethical for us to do so since the nature of counseling is so very private and confidential.  That leaves us a bit hampered in our ability to do a lot of impression management with a lot of negative and incorrect information that is circulated about us on social media.  (Although we do have our own social media, and I’d invite your readers to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!).  We try to work through positive means to get our message out, which is why I appreciate this interview!  We want to let students know about the incredibly broad range of services that are available, the deep commitment of Counseling Center staff, the expertise that we hold in mental health for college students, and to try to let students know that we’re here and we care. Just like in any other area of life, people may believe a sincere and genuine message, or they may not, but we certainly try to offer that message as much and as often as possible and in as many places as we can. 

Interview:

I think that was a great response for students because I think we put so much blame on this one word, ‘stigma,’ and you did a really good job of what it is, what it’s not, and the problems that we have on campus, so thank you for that clarification.

Dr. Bradley:

You’re welcome!  If I can say one more thing about stigma–what the research in higher education counseling center studies has suggested to us is that if I am a student and I think that I might need counseling, I worry about what other people will think if they know I’m going to counseling. But when somebody asks [a student], ‘Do you stigmatize other students who go to counseling? What would you think if your best friend or a loved one, or someone in the class seat next to you went to counseling?’ There are very low levels of stigma there. Very few people say, ‘I’m going to judge someone else for getting help.’

Interviewer:

[So, the stigma is in] that perceived judgement.

Dr. Bradley:

Right.

Question 3:

What resources does Georgia Tech offer to students remotely for mental health, especially during this pandemic?

Dr. Bradley:

All of our counseling and workshop services have been operationalized remotely through our website, or through individual Telebehavioral health counseling.  Telebehavioral health uses a synchronous audio/visual platform which is compatible with HIPPA privacy regulations.  We are in the planning and piloting process of getting all of our group offerings available through Telebehavioral health. We also have ‘Let’s Talk’ discussions available by remote.  Let’s Talk is not a counseling/therapy service, it’s just a problem-solving conversation or a simple touch-base with a counselor.  No paperwork, and often just a one-time chat.  It’s easy to register for Let’s Talk through our website.  [https://counseling.gatech.edu/]   

We are also responding to the incredible times that we are all facing in history with the pandemic and with the tragedy of the murder of Mr. Floyd and the tragedies and protests which continue. The Counseling Center is responding with heart-felt outreach to the campus, particularly to African-American and Black students, students of color, and allies.  We’re offering Restorative Circles each week which are support and discussion groups, not counseling groups.  We have Restorative Peace Circles specifically for students who identify as Black and/or African American, and/or POC, and we have concurrent Restorative Ally Circles. Those circles are opportunities for communities to come together to talk in safe spaces where that can be done. This is one of the ways in which the Counseling Center reaches out to students and offers needed services at this time.  [https://counseling.gatech.edu/inclusion-and-advocacy-events]

Question 4:

What are some of the biggest mental health concerns that have come from the pandemic?

Dr. Bradley:

The mental health concerns, I think, include some of what you’d expect, like feeling isolated. When we are physically distant, how do we remain fully connected? We know that we can do that as best we can through technology. We also know that technology can tend to get a bit exhausting. People talk about Zoom meeting exhaustion [for example]. So, isolation is a primary one. 

I think restlessness and irritability, and some increase in domestic violence is something that we’re seeing with the pandemic.  Domestic violence may not be as prominent in the college age generation, but it’s certainly present. I think the corollary that is showing up in college students is more along the lines of environments that may be toxic for the student. Some students unfortunately are returning to home environments where the emotional tone is toxic. I also want to acknowledge that what the pandemic has shown us in terms of mental health and wellbeing is that there are great disparities in privilege for students in terms of the circumstances to which they return. Students returned to a wide continuum of different circumstances around factors like family financial security, financial access, quality of housing, whether a parent or parents may or may not be employed, the type of job in which a parent may be employed and the vulnerability and risk to virus exposure.  If they are a healthcare worker, for example, the exposure level is one of greater risk, and the student returned to a more vulnerable family environment. So, health worries are certainly increased as a result of the pandemic. 

So, I mentioned isolation, anxiety and depression, restlessness, irritability, increases in domestic violence, and for students nationally, concerns about what kind of environment are they living in? It may be emotionally toxic, there may also be concerns around different levels of privilege in the environment and what the student is having to try to navigate at any given time.

Question 5:

What is one of the most rewarding things about counseling and helping students?

Dr. Bradley:

The most rewarding thing for me is the opportunity to love the next generation. To love, to support, to help in some way that may allow our incredibly gifted students to help further their journey to make their place in the world, contributing their gifts to world. So, for me, as a psychologist with several decades of experience working in higher education, it really boils down to the opportunity to love and support the next generation.

Question 6:

What is your favorite Georgia Tech tradition?

Dr. Bradley:

Well, my favorite Georgia Tech tradition, I think, involves the Wreck and the fight song, ‘I’m a rabblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech and a heck of an engineer!’ My father, who just passed away in April, was a great admirer of Georgia Tech and was also an engineer.  When I accepted the GT Counseling Center directorship two years ago, I called him up and said, ‘Dad, I’m taking a new job. Here’s a clue about where I’m going,’ and I sang the first line of the Georgia Tech fight song. And I remember him laughing–he was quite happy for me.