Your well-being matters: How the University Counseling Center can help

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


At the University of Utah, as on most college campuses, more students are reporting anxiety and stress due to the pandemic, a divisive election season and economic disruption. Lauren Weitzman, director of the University Counseling Center, and Josh Newbury, interim associate director for clinical services, discuss mental health trends, pandemic fatigue and how the Counseling Center has adapted to provide helpful services and support. Recorded on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Hello. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah, and in this episode of U Rising, we're going to talk about an issue of vital importance to our university and to other universities around the country — the mental health and well-being of our students.

Some studies during the pandemic are suggesting that difficulties with mental health and the pandemic, certainly, having a negative impact on the well-being of our 18- to 24-year-olds. Other surveys may be showing a little bit different results. So, I think today we wanted to hear from some University of Utah experts and get their perspective on this.

My guests today, Lauren Weitzman and Josh Newbury. Lauren is the director of the University Counseling Center and she's also an adjunct associate professor of educational psychology. Josh is the interim associate director for clinical services and coordinator of social work training, a staff clinical social worker, also with our University Counseling Center.

Lauren, Josh, warmest welcome to you!

President Watkins: Let's start with a broad overview. We know that for many, many people right now, the pandemic, the economy, the upcoming election, have generated some anxiety, and I think a lot of it is associated with uncertainty and wondering what's going to happen and where we are. Are you seeing this reflected in our students? Are our students experiencing more mental health difficulties during this time? Lauren, maybe you'd give us your perspective on that.

Lauren Weitzman: Yes, our students are definitely being impacted by these events, as are all of us. And I think we are all experiencing a sustained level of stress with several of these high-impact or acute events happening on top of the chronic stress that we've been living with from the pandemic for at least seven months now.

Specific to the pandemic, we do find that our clients are telling us—about 60%—that COVID is affecting their mental health and we find a particular impact on motivation, feelings of loneliness, feeling isolated. And we also know that there's different impacts for different students. For example, many students have had to move home to live with parents during the pandemic, and for some students, they're just experiencing some mild adjustments while other students are experiencing more significant stress due to more challenging family concerns, such as financial stress, safety concerns, that kind of thing.

President Watkins: So, earlier today, we have a COVID briefing group that meets several times a week and Dr. Mike Good from Health Sciences was talking about the impacts on people that are sort of like a long, sustained natural disaster of some sort in terms of how people respond to this. And it sounds a little bit like you're describing that impact on our students. So, Josh, if you want to tell us a little bit about how you've adapted during this pandemic to help serve students through this new way of operating.

Josh Newbury: Yeah, absolutely. So, the Counseling Center, in very little time I think—we pulled it off in about two days—transitioned all of our services over to tele-mental health and HIPPA-compliant Zoom accounts, in particular. So, all of the services of the Counseling Center are actually available online and students can initiate services with us, get started, by calling the Counseling Center. And for those students who are listening, that's 801-581-6826. We can conduct intakes, provide crisis services. We have individual counseling, couples counseling and group therapy, and all those services are being provided safely over video conferencing.

President Watkins: It's really impressive how quickly you shifted and adapted. How has it affected participation in counseling? I don't know, Lauren, if you want to field that one?

Lauren Weitzman: Sure. We are seeing a continued increase and steady utilization, and we also see that students are adapting pretty well to the virtual platforms that we're using, maybe a little bit better than some of us are who are the dinosaurs in the room. But yeah, no. Students are reaching out. We really appreciate that we're available and we'll also tell you a little bit more about some of the other offerings, such as in our Mindfulness Center that we have for students.

President Watkins: That's great. And I think I recall Vice President Lori McDonald conveying to our Cabinet that you're actually maybe seeing less missing of appointments in this kind of a format. Is that accurate and what do you think is happening there?

Josh Newbury: Yeah. So, I think in a way, the transition to tele-mental health has made us kind of frictionless in a way. So, as students before would have to maybe leave class early or leave work early, they would drive over to campus or drive towards the Counseling Center. They would find parking. They would walk over. But in a way, we're more accessible to students than we've ever been before, so they're able to click on a link that takes them into a Zoom waiting room and then they meet with their counselor at the time of their appointment. So, this adaptation that we've made has actually made us more accessible to students than we've ever been before.

President Watkins: So, we are all saying that there are some opportunities that have come through the pandemic and you've just given us a great example. Perhaps the frictionless, easier access is, in fact, going to mean that some of these new approaches will stay with us post-pandemic.

Josh Newbury: That's absolutely one of the things that we're anticipating.

President Watkins: We know that sometimes holidays are times of great stress. The end of semester brings the buildup of all the things that are due, particularly for students, probably for faculty as well, and then over break. Tell me about how you're planning for that period of time. And will services be available from the Counseling Center during that period?

Lauren Weitzman: We will continue to operate as usual, so the only time the Counseling Center is closed are university closure days. So, for us, it will be a seamless transition, and really, we're going to be continuing to do all that we've done. And we do recognize, as you said, that I think things are going to become increasingly challenging as we move into the darker months and just more duration of all of these stressors. And we will be curious to see how students will continue to reach out to us, certainly once we get into our longer break. But we will be available and providing all of the services to our students.

President Watkins: That's spectacular news and we really want our student listeners to hear that message. Your Counseling Center is here for you and will be here for you after Thanksgiving, when we return to remote and throughout the break, other than university closure days, which is really spectacularly good news. I also think you have made some new offerings and created some opportunities for support of mental health, perhaps a little bit different than the typical offerings, through the pandemic. Would you like to highlight any of those?

Josh Newbury: For sure. We've recognized that there are lots of ways for students to receive support and lots of ways that students are already taking care of themselves and taking care of others in their life as well. So, a couple things that we've brought online for this year in particular. So, we have some first-year student-specific programming. So, it's an evening of connection and compassion. It's a two-night workshop that's available through our Mindfulness Center, and students can register online. It's totally free to participate. We also have a Coping with COVID Chaos workshop that we're also offering through our Mindfulness Center. That's for students who are understandably struggling with really strong emotions and other concerns because of COVID-19 and the restrictions on socialization and the physical distancing requirements.

We've also brought online a support group for international students and then some workshops that are specific to the concerns of international students as well, many of whom are unable to travel right now and are maybe looking at going several months without being able to see their family members. And our Mindfulness Center in and of itself has a really great resource. We offer daily drop-in meditation and Feel Better Now workshops, which help students to address a range of concerns, including depression and anxiety, focus, self-criticism and self-compassion. So, that's another great resource for students.

Then we have this very cool app on our website which is entirely free to students called ACT Daily, which stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which helps students to get in touch with their deepest-held values and to act on those even when they feel really strong and difficult emotions, which is probably a mild way to describe what's going on for everyone right now.

So, those are just some of the ways in which we are trying to be more available to students and to offer many options for support and care right now.

President Watkins: So, Josh and Lauren, that is an impressive array of new things since COVID, and I think Coping with COVID is kind of what we're all learning to do, one way or another. Is there a website where students can go particularly to find those resources? So pertinent, so timely. And I'm so grateful to you for your creativity in developing so swiftly in response to this pandemic, that I don't think any of us could really see back in March where we would be here, nearing November. Tell me the website so we can post that and share that with our listeners.

Lauren Weitzman: Yeah. So, thank you. I know one thing I have to say. I work with an amazing group of creative and innovative folks at the Counseling Center and I think that's been even more illuminated during the past several months. I think definitely the Mindfulness Center website and just our basic Counseling Center website, which is counselingcenter.utah.edu. It has the app that Josh just mentioned. It's got all of the information about our services and so we do have a separate Mindfulness Center website that has all of the information and how to register. We ask that folks do register online for many of these offerings, and so you can find it all there.

President Watkins: That's great. Counselingcenter.utah.edu. Easy to find you through the Utah homepage. Now, what about our faculty and staff? Are there resources available to the rest of our campus community?

Lauren Weitzman: Yes, of course. While we provide clinical services just to University of Utah students, as university employees we also have access to the employee assistance program, of course. But please know, for faculty and staff, that all of our Mindfulness Center offerings that we've been discussing are open to you and available. And I will say, another kind of silver lining here is we have found more people attending these offerings as a result. So, in terms of getting that additional support, opportunities to practice mindfulness, meditation, please join us. And the other thing that we'd like faculty and staff to know is that they're always available to call and consult with us if they have students that they're working with, if they have some concern or worry about that. So, part of what we do is provide that opportunity to talk through some situations, figure out how to best support students on campus.

President Watkins: I'm so glad you mentioned that, Lauren, because I know, as a faculty member or a staff member, when you interact with students and they express concerns to you, there are times when you need a place to reach out and get some guidance and advice and help. And that the Counseling Center is a good resource for our faculty and staff for many reasons, and certainly to get some support and assistance with their students. So, thank you for that.

Now, of course, as you pointed out, we're going into the really more difficult months weather-wise for many of us. Our skiers are happy as we look towards the winter. But there is some pandemic fatigue beginning to set in and I think we're all increasingly realizing that our behavior will need to be modified to promote safety and health for a while longer as we look to the future. And all of us extroverts are missing people and missing events. So, I think we'd love to get some wisdom from you for our listeners about encouragement and guidance and ways that you might recommend people can recharge and re-energize through this period of pandemic fatigue. So, we  welcome your guidance.

Lauren Weitzman: Thank you. And I'll share a few things and then Josh will also have some things to offer here. So, absolutely. I mean, first, I think just recognizing that we are going to all have to continue to dig deep and maybe access kind of resiliency that we didn't even know that we had. So, working proactively on continuing to develop and refine coping strategies. I agree,  the next few months are going to be particularly challenging. One of the things we always recommend is that folks develop a consistent routine that certainly includes regular physical exercise, good sleep, hygiene, finding those ways to receive support and connect socially with people even at a physical distance.

We also advise people to think about ways in which they may expand their circle of influence, and this can be looking at ways that we can perhaps have an impact on what's happening around us. While we certainly can't control the virus, there's things we can do, like wearing our masks and practicing social distancing. Right now, I think we can vote. We can talk with legislators, kind of share our positions and thoughts and opinions. And when we feel like we have a little bit more control over what's happening or a potential impact on our environment, I do think that's another important way we can continue to live within this pandemic.

Josh Newbury: One thing that I'll say as well. We have, I think, 19 unique therapy groups at the Counseling Center, and I had an experience over the summer of running a therapy group for the first time over Zoom. And the feedback overwhelmingly was positive, and actually one of the things that was highlighted is how great it is to have time during the week to get together with other people. I think one of the things to kind of acknowledge is that we are really losing, we're losing something, and that one of the things that we're experiencing is grief that we don't get to do the things that we used to do, that we want to do. Grief tends to get better by acknowledging it, by sharing it with other people, by seeing how other people are feeling the same way. There's a kind of common humanity and connection when we see that that's happening for other people.

What I'd recommend, too, is it's easy to really kind of look at us as going without or being bored. But taking a moment to get in touch with our deeply held values. I think for most people, they really care about other folks. There's a lot of empathy. There's a lot of concern for the greatest good. And when we follow the guidelines that have been set, we're actually taking care of people, so that's another way to try to reframe the experiences. It's not that we're losing everything that was really important to us. It's that when we stay at home, when we do the things that are important to us, we're actually acting on our deepest held values.

President Watkins: Very helpful advice and guidance from both of you experts. I really want you to know how deeply I and others at the University of Utah, how grateful we are to you for the creativity and innovation that you have shown through the pandemic, finding new ways, and some of them that may ultimately be better ways, to provide access to support and counseling and mental health services. So, we're grateful to you for that and also for that bit of advice about how we ourselves can do our part to be part of a greater whole and thinking about the collective good and protecting the well-being of our communities as a very much shared value. It's one of the most wonderful things about Utah. There is such a strong spirit of the collective good and of protecting each other. So, we'll use that as kind of our north star for this next phase and find ways to connect as you have helped us do today. So, special thanks to you, Lauren and Josh, for the leadership that you've provided.

Lauren Weitzman: Thank you.

Josh Newbury: Thank you.

President Watkins: And I really also want to say thank you to you listeners for joining us for this conversation. Again, counselingcenter.utah.edu. And I hope you'll join again for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.