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.