Before COVID-19, impromptu campus conversations were a natural way for Trish Haak to learn what was happening in the lives of faculty, staff, and students at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. As a licensed clinical social worker for the college, Haak’s job is to provide mental health consultation to veterinary students, employees who work at the hospital, and even pet owners, by offering counseling, well-being services, and an ear in which they can confide.

But the pandemic, which halted in-person interactions, has made communication challenging at a time when Haak’s role is more important than ever. Like many others in her profession, she is turning to technology to communicate. That includes reaching out to more students by sending emails offering mental health resources, scheduling virtual support sessions before the semester’s end, providing webinars, and continuing to extend a virtual open door for employees to reach out to her by phone or Zoom.

“Even with a resilient mindset, people are reluctant to reach out when they do need help,” Haak said. “The isolation aspect of this situation is not helping.”

With anxiety at an all time high due to COVID-19 and current events, Haak and other mental health professionals across Virginia Tech have made significant adjustments in the ways that they provide support for the Hokie community in a contactless environment.

Now, heading into the summer and preparing for the fall, their messages remain the same — help for Hokies is available and it is offered by phone or virtually, for now.

Trish Haak is a licensed clinical social worker at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
Trish Haak is a licensed clinical social worker at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Megan Quesenberry for Virginia Tech.

“There are fantastic tools for mental health providers during disasters, but there is not a model for this particular situation and no single strategy that works for everyone,” Haak said. “We need to be creative and proactive in how we work.”

The preliminary results of a recent survey of all Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students paint a clearer picture of the needs. In April, 27 percent of respondents said that emotional or mental health difficulties related to COVID-19 hurt their academic performance for six or more days, according to a Healthy Minds Study survey sent by the University of Michigan, in collaboration with Cook Counseling Center at Virginia Tech. This is up about 10 percent from a similar Healthy Minds survey in February, before the pandemic.

Also, 58 percent of students said that their financial situation was a lot more stressful or somewhat more stressful as a result of COVID-19.

Cook Counseling Center has been responding to students’ mental health needs since mid-March by providing telehealth services via the Zoom platform by appointment. Its campus office, which recently relocated to 2475 Oak Lane, also is staffed by a small group of counselors to handle crisis situations.

Since the pandemic began, demand for one-on-one therapy has decreased, though the center’s 32 counselors have been available virtually and via online support groups, said Ellie Sturgis, the center's interim director.  

“In the spring, students were so busy taking care of their coursework, and it [virtual counseling] was really unfamiliar,” she said.

Ellie Sturgis is interim director of Cook Counseling Center.
Ellie Sturgis is interim director of Cook Counseling Center. Photo provided by Ellie Sturgis.

This summer, along with its same telehealth offerings, Cook Counseling is forming online support groups that cover a variety of areas, including motivation and structure, overcoming obstacles, and groups for students of color. Students may sign up and find information online.

“People are still working on managing stress, managing anxiety and depression, and managing and now coping with some unique situations,” Sturgis said.

In the fall when classes resume, there likely will be more students seeking counseling as a result of anxiety caused by the pandemic and financial stresses on families, said Chris Wise, assistant vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech.

Additionally, based on the work of a university mental health task force, Cook Counseling made plans before COVID-19 to embed counselors in several colleges at the university, including the Pamplin College of Business and the Graduate Life Center, Wise said. He expects those plans to move forward this fall.

Starting in mid-March, Hokie Wellness, which jointly reports to Student Affairs and Human Resources, rolled out a plethora of online resources to help students and employees weather the pandemic. Its Hokie Wellness at Home topics run the gamut, from Instagram cooking demos and fitness and sleep advice to a monthly calendar with ideas for parents to keep children occupied at home. It also partnered with Cook Counseling Center to offer April and May COVID-19 connection sessions. These were virtual meet-ups for students to share feelings and coping strategies and connect with fellow Hokies. Participation in these virtual programs was high through the spring semester, said Amy Epperley, director of Hokie Wellness.

This summer, Hokie Wellness mostly will offer employee programs, including a series of online virtual resilience workshops covering such topics as handling stress, promoting self-care, and reframing negative thoughts.

Amy Epperley is director of Hokie Wellness.
Amy Epperley is director of Hokie Wellness. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

“It has been extremely rewarding to see the entire Hokie Wellness team pull together to continue to support our students and employees during this very difficult time,” Epperley said.

It’s unclear if these student or employee programs will be offered in-person this fall, but all activities will have a virtual format, she said.

For one-on-one counseling, Hokie Wellness refers university employees to third-party providers through Employee Assistance Programs that are offered by the state’s healthcare plans. Students are referred to Cook Counseling Center.

As for other campus community support, four advocates who work for the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech continue to provide counseling and advocacy services for students, faculty and staff who have been impacted by gender-based violence. But rather than in-person, these sessions are held via Zoom. 

“All of the people who we work with have already experienced trauma,” said Christine Smith,  co-director of the Women’s Center. “Having social support is very important for people who have experienced trauma and given our current situation, the social isolation can really exacerbate symptoms related to trauma.”

The Women's Center at Virginia Tech is located at 206 Washington Street in Blacksburg.
The Women's Center at Virginia Tech is located at 206 Washington Street in Blacksburg. Photo provided by the Women's Center.

Also, the Women’s Center recognizes that current stay-at-home guidelines issued to stop the spread of COVID-19 are difficult for those who live with an abusive partner or family member. Victims of abuse may be in more danger during the pandemic because their home may not be safe, Smith said.

“Often social isolation is also used by an abusive partner or family member as a form of power and control,” she said.

The Women’s Center, alongside Hokie Wellness, is promoting an initiative called Staying Safe at Home when home is not safe. The initiative encourages victims and friends of victims to reach out to the Women’s Center or the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley to receive support and help with safety planning. 

Once pandemic restrictions loosen, Smith said she expects that the center will receive more requests for help.

“We’ll be working with the trauma that people experienced during the stay at home orders,” she said. “Abuse is not stopping. For people who used to come to work or school, that was a time when they could reach out.”

Overall, encouraging faculty and students to ask for help is important and works to reduce mental health stigma, particularly during this time, said Robert Trestman, who is a professor and chair of psychiatry at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Robert Trestman is professor and chair of psychiatry at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
Robert Trestman is professor and chair of psychiatry at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

He said that Carilion Clinic, among multiple initiatives, has offered peer-to-peer online support groups for employees and converted some rooms in medical facilities into soothing, meditation spaces for practitioners.

“People don't like to ask for help,” Trestman said. “We have to reduce the barriers.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone