Interviewer: Sophia Martin
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.’
[So, the stigma is in] that perceived judgement.
What resources does Georgia Tech offer to students remotely for mental health, especially during this pandemic?
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]
What are some of the biggest mental health concerns that have come from the pandemic?
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.
What is one of the most rewarding things about counseling and helping students?
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.
What is your favorite Georgia Tech tradition?
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.