Editor’s note: Some students interviewed have been provided pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia’s student body has remained scattered across the world. In addition to the unique challenges and collective trauma brought on by the pandemic, the remote University environment has posed challenges for students struggling with mental health.
Counseling and Psychological Services has continued operating via virtual appointments and programming, holding over 33,000 appointments between February 2020 and February 2021. Despite the University’s efforts to maintain an adequate mental health apparatus, many students have continued to face challenges with building meaningful connections during virtual counseling and with working through traumas and illnesses as productively as they might have in an in-person environment.
Patient satisfaction data from CPS shows that since the onset of the pandemic, students’ experiences with CPS have either remained the same or improved. The percentage of students who have given the service a “very satisfied” rating has increased by from 39 percent to 62 percent. Additionally, the rate of utilization for CPS services has remained consistent during the pandemic: 97.3 percent of what it was before February 2020.
An early concern that arose when Columbia sent students home in March was whether students would be able to receive care in locations in which CPS’ counselors were not licensed. To continue serving students scattered across the country, CPS has obtained licensure and other temporary credentials for students in 32 states and in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Quebec. Students outside of these jurisdictions—both in the United States and abroad—are referred to Workplace Options, a private and independent provider with whom CPS has contracted. To avoid discouraging students from seeking their services, CPS has opted out of sharing the list of states in which its staff is licensed to practice.
“We are governed by the complicated patchwork quilt of license laws,” Dr. Richard Eichler, CC ʼ75 and the executive director of the counseling and psychological services division at Columbia Health, said. “When we transitioned to virtual care it was really quite the challenge. We mounted a full-scale Herculean effort to get as many of our folks able to practice in as many states as possible.”
The effort to gain licensure outside of New York has continued past the initial onset of remote learning last spring, as the list of approved states fluctuates with changing state rules. According to a CPS spokesperson, CPS has obtained licensure in the states where most Columbia students reside, meaning less U.S.-based students and all students living abroad are referred to Workplace Options.
“Many of our staff are now working on temporary licenses or executive orders out of state,” Eichler said. “Many states created possibilities of getting temporary licenses or allowed people to practice across state lines by executive orders. We literally are monitoring every state on a weekly basis because we have to practice within the confines of the law.”
Last spring as CPS worked to obtain licenses outside of New York, joining Zoom counseling sessions from childhood bedrooms became the norm for many students. Such a counseling setting presented a new obstacle for students who relied on the privacy of in-person sessions to work through personal concerns or family trauma.
“I was in an abusive home and talking on the phone about how I feel is not necessarily something that I am able to do in that home,” Melissa Cook, CC ’20, said. “That was a difficult situation to navigate.”
During the transitional period from on-campus to remote learning, some students—like Grace, CC ’22—had trouble continuing with their Columbia counselors while at home.
“Towards the end of spring semester, my therapist began trying to refer me to an outside therapist who takes Columbia’s insurance,” she said. “I got a referral, but even with insurance there was a copay. I didn’t end up following through and planned to try again the next fall.”
Over the past year, CPS has continued to offer support group spaces. This semester, 28 are being offered and many of them are designed to address mental health challenges specifically associated with the pandemic.
Mary, CC ’21, utilized support groups last spring after returning from a study abroad program, but found it difficult to be vulnerable in the virtual group environment.
“I believe there were only three of us there, and though the CPS therapist tried to moderate it, it honestly just felt like a collective complaining session, but not in a cathartic way,” she said. “Just wallowing without advice or guidance. I came out feeling more hopeless, so I just decided not to return for the sessions that followed. Something about Zoom just doesn’t feel right in a vulnerable group setting for me.”
Despite challenges created by the pandemic, Aaron Rafanan Ullman, CC ’24, expressed appreciation that CPS has remained a resource despite physical distance from the University’s campus.
“I do believe that there are struggles connecting as intimately with a therapist online. It takes me longer to open up and recognize the person on the other side of the screen,” he said. “However, adding on tensions of our outside world, it is wonderful to know that there is another person there to help you through your problems.”
In addition to CPS, other student organizations that serve the campus’ mental health needs have continued operating. Nightline, a Columbia-Barnard peer-listening group, has faced challenges due to the remote format and reduced its hours of operation from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily to 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
Lowri Rachel Thomas, CC ’21, a peer listener from Nightline, noted that students often have difficulty working up the motivation to even seek help.
“When you are physically distanced from a place, you feel more isolated and perhaps less likely to reach out without having that continual engagement,” Thomas said. “There is something really powerful about knowing that you can call someone and they will just listen to you. You can say whatever you want, you can completely unload, which is not something we always have the freedom to do with the people in our lives.”
Professor Linda Valeri, an assistant professor in biostatistics at the Mailman School of Public Health, discussed the particular mental health challenges created by remote learning and the reliance and consistent use of technology as forms of interaction.
“I think there is a missed opportunity to develop a deeper involvement,” Valeri said. “I think there is something about the fact that you are working with someone in person that reinforces the experience and makes it real. There is this passive aspect of the artificial world that makes it less real and therefore less memorable.There is a value to personal experience.”
At Mailman, Valeri primarily teaches graduate and master’s students in her courses. Within her role as a professor, Valeri has observed how circumstances around remote learning have pushed students to overextend themselves beyond pressures that had already existed before the pandemic.
“Of course the students are—in a general situation—under a lot of pressure for their academic performance, but the use of these digital devices and to be connected, the fact that it is much harder to reach faculty, I think pushed the students to take on too many projects simultaneously,” she said. “I think this really overburdened them.”
Valeri also noted the impacts of the lack of an in-person social environment beyond its immediate effects on a student’s mental health.
“When you are in a graduate program or undergraduate program, you are not just by yourself studying,” she said. “You are also hoping to get out of this experience friendships and potential, future, academic, professional colleagues. This aspect is very elusive now. The types of connections you make now are filtered by technology. Do we trust these new ties that we produce as much as the trust that we placed on the relationships that we built before?”
Still, while resources remain present and available, the barrier of a Zoom screen remains a challenge for students who seek to foster connections with their counselors akin to those they had prior to the onset of the pandemic.
“I think that for me a lot of my mental health is helped by getting outside of my internal world,” Cook said. “The in-person experience of being able to see the effect on a therapist’s face, on a psychiatrist’s face, that shows that they are concerned about you and care about you, is a huge piece to my treatment and recovery. That, to me, is really important.”