Lehman College Expands Mental Health Resources for Students Amid the Pandemic
Bethany, a senior multimedia performing arts major with a concentration in theater, had struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as she could remember. But the COVID-19 pandemic threatened her mental health in entirely new and frightening ways.
Worried that she might spread the virus to a relative she lived with whose health made them especially vulnerable to the disease, she rarely ventured outside. She didn’t see her friends and boyfriend for months, compounding her sense of isolation. Her sole source of income, a job as a barista, was tenuous, with the coffee shop where she worked closing temporarily. And she found it difficult to stay motivated once Lehman turned to remote learning.
It etched away at the gains she’d made in managing her depression and anxiety in recent years. “Things were never perfect, but they’d gotten better—and then suddenly, during the pandemic, I found myself in a place I hadn’t been in a long time,” she said. “I thrive off of having a schedule and things being consistent, and when everything stopped, and I wasn’t going to work or school, I was completely thrown off. My brain was like, ‘what do I do now?’”
She turned to a familiar resource for help in processing the changes: Lehman College’s Counseling Center. Bethany had first started attending individual and group therapy sessions as a freshman and was relieved to find that the center would be continuing its services remotely during the pandemic.
“I’m probably the Counseling Center’s biggest fan,” she said. “There’s always something you can learn and use to develop your emotional thinking. It’s done so much for me in ways I couldn’t even describe.”
According to Karen Smith Moore, the center’s director, Bethany is like many of the students her staff has counseled in the past year, who face significantly more stress because of the pandemic and at the same time have been stripped of coping measures they typically rely on like having a safe space outside their home or meeting up with friends. Counseling Center staff have noted increased trauma symptoms, anxiety and depression, reports of family distress, and suicidal ideation among students, Moore said.
But Lehman is taking steps to ensure that more students get the help they need. Armed with a $247,000 grant from the federal CARES Act, the College is expanding its free mental health resources as students continue to grapple with parallel crises—from COVID-19 to police violence to the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
Lehman will significantly increase the College’s Counseling Center staff with the hire of five additional part-time psychological counselors. Three have already been onboarded, while two are completing the application process, according to Moore. Before the College received the CARES Act funding, the center had three full-time and two part-time counselors.
It’s hiring a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner as well. Moreover, the center will be investing in additional telehealth equipment and a mental health and wellness app that students can access from desktop, mobile, and tablet devices, Moore said.
Jermaine Wright, Lehman’s vice president for Student Affairs, said he hopes the additional staff will help further the College’s mission to destigmatize mental health. The Counseling Center assisted 471 students in 2019-2020 and held 4,526 individual appointments.
“We need students to understand that we are here as a source of support on their path to graduation,” he said.
Creating a Safety Net for Students
The grant is part of some $250 million in CARES Act funding that CUNY received last year. CUNY distributed nearly half of the funds directly to students and allocated the rest to a range of student supports, including $5 million for senior and community colleges to strengthen their mental health and wellness outreach. Some of the funds will also be used to bolster university-wide mental health services.
Moore and Wright anticipate that the Counseling Center’s traditional in-person approaches will eventually return when the campus reopens. Its wide range of services include comprehensive assessments, crisis interventions, workshops on mindfulness and stress reduction, classroom presentations, and campus-wide educational events.
Still, the center has shown remarkable dexterity in advocating for mental wellbeing during the pandemic, with individual and group teletherapy sessions. The Counseling Center has also reinforced self-care and stress management on social media, and at a virtual faculty meeting during the Fall 2020 semester, center staff presented helpful tactics and online resources so that faculty can better assist students with stress management and accessing services.
Students can call 718-960-8761 and email firstname.lastname@example.org to speak to a counselor; visit the center's web page for more. CUNY also provides access to a free service that enables students to quickly connect with counselors via text. Text "CUNY" to 741741 to start a confidential conversation with a trained volunteer.
These resources, Bethany emphasizes, can be life-saving. “I tell all my friends that they should try the Counseling Center—you’re never wasting anyone’s time, and it’s better to deal with a problem than to wait until it becomes something huge,” she said. “It never hurts to have someone to talk to.”