Mental health groups offer resources and advice in time of virtual learning

Professionals advise maintaining a routine and practicing self-compassion

Parker+Peters

Parker Peters

By Irina Costache, Assistant News Edtior

As the fall semester begins at the University of Massachusetts, students returning both in person and virtually are facing the unique challenge of isolation from their peers and the loss of a social life.

To provide resources for students as they adjust to this new way of learning, various mental health organizations on campus are switching to online operations with a focus on building connections.

“Right now, I think the need for connection to other people is paramount. And I think that providing a space for that is probably one of the biggest functions and goals of what we’re doing,” said Amanda McEnery, a staff psychologist at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health.

When UMass switched to remote operation in March, CCPH adjusted by offering all of its services to students virtually, as well. Instead of closing down once the spring semester ended, the clinic continued serving students online throughout the summer.

One of the ways that the center has been providing care and support for students is through its Community Conversation groups, easily accessible online groups covering many topics that any student can attend.

One of the Community Conversations groups that McEnery facilitated over the summer was for first-year students, all whom joined the group for various reasons. CCPH said that all of its services take place through Zoom, with added security to comply with HIPPA regulations.

“We’re not taking documentation of the people in their medical charts, we’re just offering the space, and my goal in those situations was just to facilitate connection and discussion amongst them,” McEnery said.

Since students are seeking support from different states and countries, McEnery said that the Community Conversation groups are one way that the center has been able to provide care across borders, where the psychologists’ licensure might not otherwise carry over.

The center is also offering workshops and therapy groups online this semester that are more targeted for specific patient needs. Both the workshops and therapy groups require students to sign up and commit to attending on a weekly basis.

According to Melissa Rotkiewicz, interim director of CCPH, utilization rates went up last semester, and the center is expecting that increase to continue into the fall.

In order to meet these increased demands, as well as accommodate students who may not be in the same time zone, Rotkiewicz said that the center is “expanding our hours to put some evening hours. Some of our groups and workshops run in the evenings. So that offers a little bit more flexibility there.”

She also said that the center is willing to work with any students to help them find care in their local communities.

Walk this Way and Team Positive Presence will also be operating remotely this year, collaborating with other mental health groups to help students combat loneliness and isolation.

“As of now, we are doing remote events for students and we are working with groups like Peer Health Ambassador Network and Project Connect. We also have our Instagram, (@umassteampositivepresence) where we post information and resources for students,” said Elizabeth Sansevero, a chemical engineering senior and member of WTW andTPP.

“We also use Instagram as a platform to send compliment cards out to students individually, similar to our peer to peer interactions we had in person in previous semesters,” she added.

The group said that one of their focuses this semester is increasing students’ awareness of mental health resources.

McEnery said she anticipates isolation and the lack of structure and routine to be the biggest challenges students will face this semester.

“Those I think sometimes can then cascade into things that might look like depressive symptoms, low motivation, difficulty focusing and anxiety,” she said.

She recommended that students connect with friends to help them maintain structure, as well as make efforts to spend time outside of their homes.

“All of us are experiencing some grief and loss around what we thought this time would look like,” said Rotkiewicz “Having a way to express that sadness and loss, whether it’s connecting with friends or family or even or finding an online chat board or forum to connect to others with around that.”

McEnery also stressed the importance of maintaining patience and self-compassion throughout this time.

“I think oftentimes there’s this notion of…‘I’m going to be as productive, if not more productive, because I have more time,’” she said. “Having empathy for yourself and patience that you’re doing the best you can and you’re always going to be trying to do better. It’s sort of this like balance of just being kind to yourself, because this is not an easy time.”

Irina Costache can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @irinaacostache.