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KSU students, staff stress social connections to nourish mental health in uncertain times

The Manhattan Mercury - 8/13/2022

Aug. 13—When Vanessa Fox conducts therapy sessions with students at Kansas State University, the sources of distress often lie out of reach.

"I've heard from a lot of students talking about the impact of global events going on," she said, mentioning climate change as an example.

"There's a lot of anxiety about the future of our environment," she said.

Fox is a staff therapist at Lafene Counseling and Psychological Services at Kansas State University. She knows she can't remove the large, global sources of students' anxiety, and she doesn't want to try to talk them out of their concern, either.

"I'm not trying to change what they're feeling," she said. "I'm just seeing it. We don't often get that when we're expressing ourselves. We're getting a counter argument, or (someone) trying to soothe what we're feeling, or somebody dismissing it rather than hearing it and seeing it."

Fox has worked as a therapist at the Lafene CAPS for about two years, during a time of great upheaval in student life amid the pandemic. Now, students starting their college careers school will find a campus humming with in-person activity, along with online options — a change from recent pandemic-tainted years. They'll also find a measure of uncertainty, as veteran students, along with beginning ones, begin to settle into a campus life that's new to them, given the disruptions of recent years.

Students and staff members stress the particular importance of social connections — always a need — amid the uncertain times.

Experience of older students

Kodee Walls, who directs mental health services at Lafene CAPS, said beginning students, when they arrive on campus, may not find the usual depth of traditional college experience among the older students. Juniors and seniors have seen much of their college lives snarled by the pandemic.

"They did not have the college experience that most people before them have had," said Walls, a doctoral-level psychologist, about the older students. "A consequence of that is that the new incoming students are not going to have the historical knowledge from students who are in leadership roles in organizations ... or in their classes."

As they navigate the environment, students will find a fairly new approach to mental health at the university. Walls described the approach used by Lafene CAPS as following a "navigated care model of service," including therapy options beyond traditional one-on-one counseling sessions and group therapy, such as telehealth workshops. Last year was the first year it was used at the university.

Walls said navigated care — with options that move outside of more traditional one-on-one therapy models — has helped to alleviate waiting periods.

"In the past, when we were in a more traditional model of therapy, there could be a three-, four-, five-week wait for an intake," she said. "Students were calling for an appointment, and they weren't being screened, they weren't being checked on."

Walls said Lafene CAPS served 1,319 students last school year, a 6% increase compared to the number served during the 2020-2021 year.

She said Lafene CAPS follows "a short-term model of service."

"That doesn't mean we don't serve students with higher needs like complex trauma, chronic suicidality, or who have been struggling with chronic depression," she said.

Therapists with Lafene CAPS work with those students, Walls said, and also help them connect to outside services.

Fewer clinicians

Walls noted a decrease in the number of available clinicians for this coming school year, from 15 last year to nine this year.

She said budget cuts forced the elimination of some of those positions, but Lafene CAPS is able to hire two more therapists if qualified applicants emerge. One of those positions is at the master's level, and the other at the doctoral level.

"The real consequence is going to be that we have fewer spots for ongoing individual therapy," she said. "But with the model as we've designed it, we are continuing to make sure we have our crisis hours covered from 8 to 5, our consultation hours (to initiate services) covered throughout the day, and our workshops and therapy groups fully staffed for students."

Importance of social activity

Walls said that for college-aged populations, research has shown that socially or group-related activities "have higher rates of successful treatment outcomes than individual therapy does for many presenting concerns."

Del'Sha Roberts, well-being adviser at K-State's Morrison Family Center for Student Well-Being, also underlined the importance of finding support from various corners of the university.

"I'm a first-generation college student," said Roberts, who this past May also completed her master's degree in public health from KSU. "That meant not having a road map already created for me."

The absence of such a map sent her deep into the university community.

"For me it was a lot of trial and error at first, and knowing when to ask for help," she said. "I became a part of the Black Student Union, and then I became president — and I found good mentors there."

Roberts characterized the whole process of asking for help as vital, particularly when issues directly related to mental health percolate to the surface.

"I think one of our large (tasks) is breaking the stigma surrounding what people think about mental health," she said. Roberts contended that resources exist in a number of places, but that the initial fear of stepping forward can often cause trouble.

Becca Heinz, a fourth-year student who's president of the Thrive Navigators, also placed strong emphasis on asking for help. Thrive Navigators is a student group that works with other students on mental health issues.

"Help is there, and there's no shame at all in getting help, even if it's for something that seems minor," Heinz said. "If it's affecting the way you live, your day-to-day activities, it's worth getting help."

Heinz, a pre-med student majoring in kinesiology at the university, also noted the way the pandemic's disruption can linger even as many in-person activities resume. She emphasized just how deeply students felt the disruptions, particularly since many had just made a transition from high school to college.

"I was a freshman when the pandemic started, and it shook up the way we were learning," she said.

Heinz said she welcomed the return to physical classrooms, but she noted, too, that online options for classes and other activities can also help to lift some stress off the shoulders of students — particularly if they need, at some point, to quarantine and don't want to miss class.

Chris Bowman, director of the Morrison Family Center, has a kind of bird's-eye view on student well-being. He's in a position which, along with the center, has only been at the university for about a year.

Bowman said it can sometimes be tough to convince students not to overextend themselves.

"There's a fear of saying no to something that may benefit them in the future," he said. "They quickly find that their schedule is filled up from saying yes to extracurricular activities because it will look good on a graduate school or job application."

Such activities can be important, Bowman said, but too many of them can stretch students' efforts over too much space.

"They have passion in so many areas, but maybe they're giving only 10% to those passion areas, and so they're spreading themselves too thin," he said.

Bowman serves as adviser to the Thrive Navigators, the student organization led by Heinz. The organization harbors just under 20 students, and it's based in the Morrison Center's office. Bowman said the group worked last school year on The Bandana Project, a national suicide awareness prevention campaign.

"They would go out and do peer-to-peer training with other (students) on campus about suicide awareness and prevention," he said.

Bowman mentioned, too, the work of a student organization called the WellCAT Ambassadors, also part of the Morrison Family Center.

"They look at a few more areas of well-being" including physical health, he said, in order to treat health as holistically as possible.

Bowman said the Morrison Family Center for Well-Being was started by a donation from Charlie and Debbie Morrison with an aim to to help students' overall wellbeing.

Reaching out to diverse body of students

Walls, of Lafene CAPS, noted the need mental health centers to reach out to diverse communities of students — particularly since the impressions students may have of mental health professionals are not always affirmative.

"Students of color are less likely to seek support around mental health issues from institutions," she said. "So much of that is due to the reality that systems of medical and mental health have actively harmed these communities and populations."

She said that for some students, too, the expectation might be to talk about mental health issues only within the family. All of that underscores the need to move out of traditional therapy spaces.

"Gone are the days when we can expect students to come to us," Walls said.

She said the center has partnered with the Morris Family Multicultural Student Center on an initiative called "Let's Talk."

"It's an evidence-based program where mental health therapists go into the spaces where students exist, and we make ourselves available for a relatively less intimidating support meeting," Walls said, noting that the program started last spring.

Walls also stressed the need to recruit applicants for therapists from diverse backgrounds.

"We're intentionally sending (position announcements) to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) that have graduate programs in mental health services," she said, citing one example.

Walls and other staff members have worked to achieve competencies, as defined by the American Psychological Association, in LGBTQ issues as well. She explained that "behind the scenes for us as clinicians, we are actively and regularly working to maintain our cultural competence with clients."

Walls and others who work in mental health highlighted, in various ways, the importance of seeing, hearing and acknowledging the sprawling range of student experiences.

And they noted the increasing need for them to see and hear and acknowledge each other, as well.


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