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Taking Care of Each Other

Red Hawks learn some mental health self-care is needed when you’re trying to change the world

Posted in: Homepage News, University

Luminaria at the university's COVID remembrance event
The University continues to evolve mental health services as the community deals with the impacts of the ongoing pandemic.

The return to campus for in-person learning has not only brought students, faculty and staff together – fully masked and mostly vaccinated – it is helping heal the wounds caused by the global pandemic.

“When I walk on campus now and I see students playing Frisbee, playing the violin, running around – I do think that it feels like we’re all a part of something together because we can see it, and that feels really good,” says Jaclyn Friedman-Lombardo, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), whose department has been working diligently throughout the pandemic to help the campus community manage the stress and mental health challenges caused by the pandemic.

Even so, it’s important to recognize many are still dealing with the trauma of the last two years, plus experiencing some new anxiety, she says.

“Without a doubt, they’re out of practice and there are concerns about safety especially being in indoor spaces,” she says. “I don’t think it’s been easy for anyone.”

A recent survey by Mental Health America shows that “signs of anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic hit an all-time high.” In particular, the study noted that “About 10% of youth in the U.S. have severe depression. In addition, this rate was highest among youth who identify as more than one race, at 12.4%.

Friedman-Lombardo told CBS Evening News for its Back to School series this fall: “If kids don’t have their mental health in check, those academics are going to plummet.” She advised, “Mental health isn’t always about seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist, sometimes it’s about becoming involved in your community. It’s about making those connections, feeling you belong.”

That’s why University resources like CAPS are continuously reaching out to campus leaders, departments, colleges, centers and faculty across campus to enlist their support.

“I have a really wonderful team here at Counseling and Psychological Services that are involved in so much with the community and doing prevention and outreach services,” says Friedman-Lombardo, “but also we have a Health Promotion Department. We have a wonderful University Health Center. Even all of the different types of support services through EOF [the Educational Opportunity Fund] or our Tutoring Center or the Career Center – places that really help students to feel connected and feel like they can make different types of resources that help students thrive and feel like they’re not in it by themselves.”

Over at Residence Life, Associate Director of Housing Services Kevin Schafer touts the work of the Crisis Assessment Response and Education (CARE) Team. “Any students who come into the system are met with and connected with services.”

Because of the pandemic, says Schafer, “A lot of people are attuned to what’s happening and they are quick to send us a note about their student to connect them with help.”

“People are trying to help each other a little more.”

Virtual and in-person

Friedman-Lombardo noted that the pandemic created challenges and opportunities for mental health services.

“All of our services went remote and that was a huge learning curve for us. It created some challenges in that privacy was a real issue for students who sometimes shared living space with other family members or maybe their Wi-Fi wasn’t working very well.” On the flip side, remote services increased accessibility with some students finding it easier to work virtual sessions into their schedule.

CAPS is retaining some of those virtual resources even with the return to campus. “We now have options,” says Friedman-Lombardo.

CAPS also has student mental health ambassadors to give students a peer-to-peer introduction to services.

“I became a Mental Health Ambassador because I wanted to be able to better help the people in my environment fight through their mental health challenges and find help,” says Alisa Hannah ’21 (Family Science and Human Development, concentration in Family Services; minor: Child Advocacy and Policy). “Reducing the stigma on campus was also a plus for the cause, and I still do in my personal relationships and daily interactions with others.”

Trauma-informed teaching

Professor of Writing Studies Emily Isaacs, through her role as executive director of the Office of Faculty Advancement, has been helping to address how teachers can help students with their trauma – as well as deal with their own.

In a workshop in August titled “Trauma-informed practices for teaching,” Isaacs took faculty members through an explanation of trauma, how to recognize it, and how to connect students with services. And she answered questions that faculty members themselves had about teaching in the ongoing pandemic.

Isaacs noted that students are still suffering the effects of the pandemic despite the return to more in-person and on-campus activity.

“Some students are feeling much better, but some are not,” Isaacs said during the workshop.

“Some people are going to like driving the campus and all the rigamarole, and some people are going to be really nervous. So we want to make class time full of all the stuff we couldn’t do on Zoom. So we want to be careful about lecturing PowerPoints. We want to make sure there is time for human engagement – with a mask. It’s doable. We want to support students who are having that experience.”

Isaacs acknowledged, “We’re not therapists. We don’t have a direct role. We are just going to be good teachers with a little more empathy. We want to minimize the likelihood of re-traumatization and we want to maximize the possibility for academic success.”

“We can do some work not only as the instructor but also as the informed adult in the room,” Isaacs told her peers. “I don’t have a background in public health, but I have a background in critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. So I know how to show my students where the CDC website is, where the COVID-19 information page at Montclair State is. I‘m not a doctor but I can help [students] discover resources and critically evaluate information.”

Supporting staff

Trauma can also be a factor for staff.

“As much as it’s stressful for the students, it’s also significantly stressful for us,” reports Thea Dyer, assistant director for Residence Life, which welcomed more than 5,000 students back to on-campus living this fall. “I think we were really hopeful that with the vaccine, things were going to be a little easier this year. But students definitely have significantly more questions. They have this extra anxiety, so we’re getting lots of comments and things to work through with them.”

Schafer from Housing Services talked about the term “compassion fatigue.”

“It’s trauma, you know, it’s exhaustion. It’s almost like crisis exhaustion,” says Schafer. “The students are experiencing it, and so are we. I think sometimes we get vicarious trauma. We live it through our students.”

Schafer notes that the stress and trauma extends to parents and families of students. “Parents have anxiety, because again, they’ve never sent their kid away and they’ve been protective of their child for the past 18 months with them not leaving the house.”

Friedman-Lombardo notes that CAPS provides referrals for everyone at Montclair State.

“We’re a student service, but we do absolutely provide referrals for faculty and staff.” In addition she notes that there’s also an employee assistance program called CONCERN that faculty and staff are eligible for. “When folks do reach out to us, which they do regularly, we have a system with a referral.”

Students learning to help themselves by helping others

“I think COVID has increased mental health challenges for many people, especially college students,” says Tryphena Esuruoso ’21 (major in Biology and a minor in Business),who is currently working full time as a medical scribe at a veterans hospital before, hopefully, entering medical school with plans to be an OB/GYN.

portrait of Tryphen Esuruoso
Tryphena Esuruoso ’21 says CAPS services helped her “take steps toward managing my own mental health. From being an Ambassador, I’ve learned more ways to manage my mental health and advise those around me.”

“College is hard enough but the added element of virtual class and events can make this unimaginably hard,” she adds. “Even the methods to release stress and overcome burnout were virtual or isolated. On top of constant fear of contracting COVID, it’s no surprise students could be struggling.”

Esuruoso says that she always struggled with anxiety and depression, but the pandemic intensified it.

“Growing up in an African household, culturally some things like this can be more taboo so I found it hard for me to speak on these.” Nonetheless, Esuruoso became a CAPS Ambassador. “Once in CAPS, I felt like I got to understand my own subconscious stigma around mental health. I also got a chance to educate myself on many topics that revolve around and/or impact mental health.” Ultimately she utilized the CAPS services herself “to help me take steps toward managing my own mental health. From being an Ambassador, I’ve learned more ways to manage my mental health and advise those around me.”

Hannah similarly says that working as a CAPS Ambassador “was helpful for my own mental health journey as well. I love to help and advocate for others. Since there are a lot of mental health struggles, small scale and large, for college students, it was really important to me to be knowledgeable about the topic and be able to help where I could or at least refer someone to services.”

“Eventually, I learned to prioritize my mental health and work on myself,” says Hannah. Her only regret: “Not making use of CAPS services more.”

‘It’s not one size fits all’

Friedman-Lombardo says that, like so much at Montclair, the approach to mental health does not exist in a silo. Besides working with Health Promotion, the University Health Center, and the Office of Faculty Advancement, CAPS is continuously reaching out to campus leaders, schools, colleges and departments, as well as students.

“It helps to know that we all have a common mission,” she says. “Then we work together because some students might not want to come to CAPS, but they’ll go to the Rec Center, or they’ll go to the Disability Resource Center or they’ll go to Health Promotion, and that’s great. It’s not like a one-size-fits-all situation for sure. It’s nice to have options for the way in which you want to engage and get the support that you need.”

Story by Mary Barr Mann. Photos (except where noted) by University Photographer Mike Peters.


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