Managing Mental Health During COVID-19
Syracuse University’s integrated approach to holistic health helps students during the pandemic and beyond.
Dana* was a bright, conscientious student until her life was upended by COVID-19 this past spring. Social isolation, coupled with daily headlines about negative news and social conflict, left her feeling numb.
Concerned about Dana’s health, her roommate suggested calling Syracuse University’s 24-hour support line. Dana reluctantly agreed and soon found herself in the company of a licensed therapist in the Barnes Center at The Arch.
Today, Dana is back on campus, slowly rebuilding her life. While still struggling with anxiety and depression, she has figured out how to cope with them, thanks to individual and group treatment at the Barnes Center.
“I’ve learned how to manage my symptoms so that they don’t manage me,” says Dana, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. “My therapist has helped me get my activities of daily living in line—I feel like I’m starting over.”
Dana’s plight is commonplace among college students. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll has found that 53% of U.S. adults experience negative mental health due to worry and stress over COVID-19. Among the side effects are difficulty sleeping and eating and an increase in alcohol consumption or substance abuse.
“I’ve seen students’ worlds fall apart,” says one University professor, noting an uptick in fear, stress and loneliness on campus. “It’s incumbent on us, as faculty, to be supportive of their struggles.”
Individual and Group Therapy
Located next to the Stadium, the gleaming, new Barnes Center is a physical expression of the University’s commitment to the student experience. The $50 million facility is supported by a lead gift from Steven W. Barnes ’82, H’19, chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees, and his wife, Deborah.
The center’s counseling services are robust, beginning with the 24/7 support line that provides free, confidential help to students. “Our staff are always available in case someone is suffering from a mental health crisis, seeking support from sexual assault or relationship violence, or needing medical advice any time of day,” says Shannon Feeney Andre ’09, G’17, communications director of the Division of Enrollment and the Student Experience. “We want our students to know that no matter what their concern may be, there is always emergency support available.”
In addition to individual therapy, the Barnes Center boasts approximately 20 online groups that deal with such topics as personal resilience skills, COVID-19 grief and loss, and behavioral therapy. “Students are always looking for ways to connect with others and get support for common areas of struggles. Zoom enables us to schedule more appointments, giving students quicker access,” says Clinical Director Carrie Lynn Brown. “For these reasons, group therapy is one of our most popular offerings.”
Elsewhere on campus, telehealth is available free of charge at the Couple and Family Therapy Center in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics and on a sliding scale in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Psychological Services Center (PSC). Both centers are staffed by licensed faculty members and graduate students who deliver treatment and psychological assessment services.
“Many people are experiencing major losses or disruptions, causing substantial grief and taking a toll on our moods,” says PSC Director Afton Kapuscinski ’08, G’12. “There also is a lot of interpersonal conflict, especially about social distancing and wearing masks in public, among people living in close quarters.”
In nearby Hendricks Chapel, Buddhist Chaplain JoAnne Cooke runs a support group. She recently asked attendees to write Japanese death poems to help understand the role of spirituality in the grieving process. “The isolation of COVID-19 brought this particular group of people together and, through writing, enabled us to discuss our views of death and afterlife,” she says. “It was inspiring and healing.”
Capitalizing on a fast-growing health trend, the University offers a handful of mindfulness-based therapies. Most of them are based in the Barnes Center, where they may be accessed via its Wellness Portal or a virtual resources playlist on YouTube. They include the Crowley Family MindSpa and the Soul Series, featuring weekly conversations and retreat programs.
Judging from their turnout, students respond to the University’s individualized yet holistic approach to treatment—mental health in context of total health and wellness. “The Barnes Center designs unique recommendations for each student,” Brown says. “For instance, if someone with anxiety sees one of our therapists, they may also be referred to work with a nutritionist, who may recommend an anti-anxiety diet, and a personal trainer, who may implement a stress-reducing exercise program.”
The Barnes Center also boasts three peer education teams, which promote wellness education through tabling and other outreach events. One group—Students Advocating for Mental Health Empowerment—is trained to discuss stress management, sleep health, time management, nutrition and resiliency. “Our peer educators are dedicated, passionate students who are making a real difference in campus well-being,” Andre says. Other peer teams specialize in substance abuse as well as sexuality and relationships.
Spirituality and Connection
For more than 90 years, Hendricks Chapel has served as the “spiritual heart” of campus, with empathetic “veins and arteries” extending into the community, explains the Rev. Brian Konkol.
As dean of the chapel, he believes education should encompass personal formation and public transformation. “We ensure students receive more than just a ticket to an entry-level job. They should be gifted with a trajectory toward an extraordinary life.”
Brian Konkol: The Healing Power of Presence
Social distancing has changed how we interact with our friends and family members. We’re all learning to live through this unprecedented period of uncertainty, shock, sorrow and fear. Konkol discusses the healing “power of presence” and what it can teach us during times of crisis, why it’s important to find community, and why this disease can’t cancel what matters most: relationships, conversations and our faith.
That 85% percent of University students self-identify as “spiritual” has created a sense of urgency in recent months. The chapel has responded with an array of student-centric programming, including a daily meditation series. Free and open to the public, each session is led by a senior practitioner, an experienced student or a volunteer from the Zen Center of Syracuse.
Cooke, who oversees the series, insists meditation calms and focuses the mind. “Take a moment to sit still, train your eyes on something and breathe, just breathe,” she says. “It’s transformative.” The chapel also hosts “Healthy Monday” meditation sessions, co-sponsored by the Lerner Center; Wednesday night online meditations, courtesy of the Lutheran Campus Ministry; and a weekly yoga class, co-presented by the University’s Contemplative Collaborative.
Moreover, the chapel, through its various chaplaincies and registered religious groups, has launched grief awareness programs, dialogue groups for student veterans, public conversations about racism and religion, and a range of worship services and prayer gatherings.
“Matters That Matter,” a new discussion series featuring prominent thought leaders, reflects the chapel’s adherence to what Konkol calls the “healing power of presence.”
“When we are present to others, we give them permission to stop hoping for a better past,” he says. “The chaplaincies are important in this regard, and we at the University have some of the best.”
Imam Amir Durić, who runs the “Spiritual Sit-Down” series, aims to instill a sense of belonging among students and recent graduates. He likens a chaplain to a first responder. “Spiritual, mental and emotional health are not mutually exclusive. We need to nurture all three, now and always.”
* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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