Counseling center, campus ministry offers emotional support virtually

Leighah Beausoleil / THE GATEPOST

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Counseling Center has closed its doors to foot traffic and is now taking a new virtual approach to helping students with emotional wellness.

Rupal Bhatt, the assistant director of the Counseling Center, said the Center is operating with clients via teletherapy.

The Center is using a virtual health service called “Telehealth,” which has more protective features than a program like Zoom, Bhatt said.

She added the Counseling Center has put out a virtual flyer specifically to address emotional wellness during COVID-19 and has created resources to address racial trauma.

Bhatt said following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they knew members of the University community would need assistance.

She said the Division of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement (DICE) had asked the Counseling Center to produce a training that addressed racial trauma.

According to Bhatt, the Counseling Center worked with DICE and an outside contractor to create a racial trauma training program.

She said the training addresses issues such as systemic racism and the impact it has on people of color – specifically Black-identified people of color – and how racial trauma affects their lives.

She added one of the great resources they have is allowing students to find a therapist of their choice.

“Students have the option to use the Counseling Center staff or to be able to find someone off campus that they can speak to,” she said.

In regard to racial trauma, she said if students would like to contact a therapist of color off campus, they have that option.

Bhatt said as mental health clinicians, they are not encouraged to use social media to communicate with potential clients, but they are using social media to help promote wellness.

“What we have done is decide to set up both Twitter and Instagram accounts, so that we can post information about clinically-relevant topics,” she said.

Bhatt specifically noted during the presidential election, the Center posted about how to reduce stress and find ways to be proactive.

“We certainly try to have an online presence,” she added.

Bhatt said at the beginning of the semester, the number of students seeking counseling was low.

During the Nov. 18 Board of Trustees meeting, Trustee Brian Herr said the Counseling Center saw approximately 51 students for counseling during the month of August.

By the month of October, the Center saw approximately 130 students for counseling, according to Herr.

Bhatt said one of the reasons students are not seeking counseling is because they prefer face-to-face interaction as opposed to online communication.

“For some people, that [virtual counseling] isn’t as effective, so they might be trying to find other possibilities off campus,” she said.

“We’re trying to reach as many students who would like our services as possible,” she added.

Bhatt said the top two reasons people seek counseling, not related to the pandemic, are anxiety and depression.

She said during the pandemic, the issue of self-isolation and distancing has become a growing problem.

Bhatt added students on campus struggle particularly with trying to maintain social distance while also wanting to connect with friends.

Most students on campus said they were aware of the Counseling Center, but many said they have not used it personally. Nor do they know anyone who has.

Grace Lugo, a sophomore political science major, said she believes the Counseling Center is a great resource. She added often, people are more inclined to confide in a stranger than in somebody they’re close to.

“I always thought if I told someone else what I’m going through and stuff – they don’t know me, they don’t know my background or anything – having their advice would be more helpful rather than telling someone that I do know,” said Lugo.

She added leaving feelings bottled up inside leads to “the darker side of things rather than the light.”

Lugo said being a Latina of color, she sympathizes with those who say they are struggling with racial trauma.

“I always remember growing up, people would tell me, ‘Go back to your country. Your mom jumped the border,’” she said.

Lugo said her parents came to this country legally and at the end of the day, “We’re all on stolen land.”

Gina McGovern, a junior early childhood education major and psychology minor, said she has not used the Counseling Center personally, but is pleased to hear that the Center is working hard to communicate with students who may need emotional support.

McGovern said it’s great students have a counseling resource here on campus that’s included in their tuition, as some students may not have health insurance that covers mental health needs.

Anna Sposato, an undeclared freshman, said she isn’t surprised to hear that people are suffering from anxiety or depression right now.

“I feel the same way,” said Sposato. “And I would expect others to, too, because we’re all limited to certain things that we are used to doing in our lives.”

Sposato said she would recommend the Center to anybody she knows on campus who may be suffering emotionally.

The leaders of Campus Ministry are also offering virtual guidance to students as well as face-to-face meetings by request.

For Catholics, Catholic Chaplain Kristelle Angelli volunteers her time to students.

Angelli said she hosts a Catholic group every Monday via Zoom, and they have continued to study the Bible to help grow their faith in these difficult times.

“We are continuing to provide opportunities for students to gather virtually, to support one another, pray, build relationships, and examine what’s going on in the world in light of their faith,” she said.

Angelli added the virtual platform has allowed her to host guest speakers from around the country who would have otherwise not been able to speak with her group.

She said although there’s been benefits to having remote connection, one of the biggest challenges she’s facing is outreach.

“It is hard to grow, both in numbers and in relationship to one another, when we are not able to meet in person,” she said.

“It feels like the relationship-building piece doesn’t work as well virtually,” Angelli added.

“We are all online so much that it can get exhausting to be in front of a screen,” she said. “Our gatherings don’t have the same relaxing, refreshing, and restful dynamic as they did in person.”

Angelli said she prays for our country every day, but said she is disappointed currently with our inability to have civil discourse as a community.

“I think it is important to be able to disagree but still respectfully discuss important issues – to assume the best about another person, even when we disagree,” she said.

In regards to the presidential election, Angelli said, “Too often, we put others in a box and say, ‘If you’re voting for Biden, we can’t be friends,’ or ‘If you’re voting for Trump, we can’t be

friends.’ The issues at stake are important, but this behavior closes the door for respectful communication.

“It leads to objectifying the other person,” she added.

Angelli said she believes people need to mutually understand one another before having political, social, or theological discussions.

“It seems that as a nation, we are moving further and further away from that, and our disunity is compounding any problems we may already have had,” she said.

Angelli added some people she has spoken with are suffering from anxiety or depression because of COVID-19 and other issues.

“Life changed so quickly last March, and in such an unexpected way, that in some ways, we are still grieving the loss of the ‘old normal’ and trying to adjust to everything that 2020 has thrown our way,” she said.

“We thought 2020 would look a certain way, so we have to grieve what we lost – our plans, our dreams, financial security – and come to terms with uncertainty and our vulnerability as human beings,” she added.

Angelli said she believes COVID-19 is an invitation from God to trust one another.

“God can, and does, bring out good suffering,” she said.

Evangelical Chaplain Thomas Chesnut is available to meet with students both virtually and in person by appointment.

Chesnut said he is happy to lend an ear to students who may need someone to talk to, and that helping people often begins with just listening.

He said a pastor he used to “invest” into his life would say, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Chesnut said, “It’s just being someone who’s available for people to talk to and come to.”

He added he sympathizes with the students who are facing anxiety and depression right now and is doing the most he can to keep students engaged.

“I’ve connected a couple of different groups of people together,” Chesnut said. “They’re meeting in an online community, through Zoom or through Facebook Messenger.

“I know there are some people who are struggling with the mental health side of the isolation,” he added.

“Just trying to create communities has been a big change because you can’t just get people together to do something that you would do together [normally],” he said. “You can’t have a game night – you can’t do these types of things.”

Chesnut said having the ability to meet with someone face-to-face and discuss challenges they may be facing in their life has a different feel to it than just meeting virtually.

“If you’re sitting across the table, even just something as seemingly unimportant as, ‘Hey, can I pray for you?’ and then putting your hand on someone’s shoulder – there’s just something about that, that’s even just comforting on a different level,” he said.

“There’s a humanity to it that just connects us together,” he added.

Chesnut said prayer is just as powerful over Zoom, but there’s a difference in comfort when speaking face-to-face during these difficult times.

He said he believes people begin seeking religious guidance when they are facing problems beyond their control.

Chesnut recalled the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and said he remembers going to church the following Sunday. He added there were far more people in attendance than the week before.

“Whenever there are overwhelming crises like this, I think it makes people ask questions that are outside the realm of their normal thought,” he said.

Christian Fellowship, a Christian organization on campus partnered with the Framingham State Banner Hill Church, has worked closely with Chesnut, and is also offering outreach to students.

Christian Fellowship President Gabrielle Laurenzano, a senior marketing major, said the group’s main focus is to allow students to come and express their faith in a safe space, as well as building relationships.

Laurenzano added it’s important to have an open community with people who may be struggling with some difficult issues.

“They [students] would definitely feel accepted at Christian Fellowship, knowing that they would have people to walk with them and have people walking alongside them who are also going through those same things,” she said.

Laurenzano said through Christian Fellowship, she has experienced first-hand building relationships with individuals, adding, “That’s essentially what we’re trying to instill in the culture of the club.”

Senior Mariah Yoder, an out-of-state student who is the marketing coordinator for Christian Fellowship, said once COVID-19 hit their community, connecting became difficult, but she always had the church to check in with.

Yoder said it can be difficult for those struggling to reach out, but when they have that support, it makes things easier.

“That’s the environment we’re really trying to create and be intentional with,” she said.

“We’re all in this together and want to support each other,” she added.

Rabbi Yakov Lazaros volunteers his time to students and said he can be reached via telephone or email.

Lazaros said people are not attending services right now due to concerns about contracting COVID-19.

He added people are seeking guidance because they are afraid of the virus.

Lazaros encourages everyone to keep faith and he believes COVID-19 will pass.

Religious Leaders’ contact information

Kristelle Angelli, kangelli@framingham.edu (Catholic Chaplain)

Thomas (TJ) Chesnut, tchesnut@framingham.edu (Evangelical Chaplain)

For information regarding Rabbi Yakov Lazaros, please contact David Baldwin, associate dean of students, at dbaldwin@framingham.edu.