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How some college students are finding mental health support as they return to school

The Center for Health and Counseling at Salt Lake Community College lowers barriers to entry, including cost and availability of services

Nursing student Tamra Rachol took advantage of services provided by the Center for Health and Counseling at Salt Lake Community College during the pandemic.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

As students headed back to campuses this fall, many carried the weight of the last 18 months on top of the stresses that come with a new academic year.

Talking through these issues with a licensed therapist early, mental health experts recommend, could stave off more serious issues for students as responsibilities increase over the semester.

A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed found 65% of the college participants rated their mental health as “fair to poor” but only 15% are seeking help through services provided by their schools.

“Therapy ... is still surrounded with much stigma,” explained Claudia Cioni, a clinical mental health counselor at the Center for Health and Counseling at Salt Lake Community College.

Cioni said clients often wait to seek therapy until they are emotionally overwhelmed, which she says is “like being in the middle of a tornado…you only see things swirling around and don’t have perspective of what is outside.”

Feeling emotionally overwhelmed hinders good solution seeking, Cioni said.

“The mind-brain has mechanisms to protect us from being overwhelmed and it starts by reducing its own capacities, like cell phones when they go into emergency functioning – close apps to continue operating but minimally,” she said.

Anxiety and depression can make it harder to learn, retain and reproduce information, which can make school and work more difficult.

And COVID-19, she noted, has put many in survival mode: “We go [to therapy] when much of living is compromised and many areas of our lives are damaged already, unfortunately; and this condition makes healing longer and painful.”

Confronting obstacles

Reasons for not seeking therapy include a lack of access, the stigma with respect to mental health and the financial burden.

“I’ve always hesitated to seek out counseling because of cost,” said SLCC nursing student Tamra Rachol. “Unfortunately, that only compounded my issues and I found unhealthy ways to cope with the stress in my life.”

Rachol took advantage of the services provided by the Center for Health and Counseling at Salt Lake Community College during the pandemic.

“Now that we’re back on campus, sessions are just $15, anywhere else it can run you $80 to $150 an hour. I’m so grateful SLCC offers this service for a price I can afford,” said Rachol, noting that she has prioritized taking care of her mental health.

Colleges and universities in Utah offer students low-cost sessions with licensed providers to help with issues including anxiety, depression, grief, sexual trauma and medication management. The fee at SLCC, for example, covers a one-hour session, and students experiencing financial hardships can apply for a fee waiver. Insurance is not necessarily required.

SLCC alum Eric Jensen, who transferred to the University of Utah last year, appreciated the accessibility of counseling services.

“For me, knowing that the counseling center was there...got me in the door,” Jensen said. “I think a lot of students don’t use it because they are hesitant about how it works … all the same rules apply, it’s all confidential, nothing goes to the school from the counselor.”

Long-term benefits

Jensen said seeing a therapist at SLCC helped influence his behaviors elsewhere and noted that going to therapy becomes like any skill, “the more you do it, the more you kind of get out of it.”

Jensen credits the sessions at SLCC for helping him identify some of his struggles and learning strategies to get through them.

“College is stressful. Students have a lot going on…and having someone to run those things by and someone to talk to was just really helpful,” Jensen said.

Since leaving SLCC, Jensen has continued therapy through an independent counselor.

Rachol thinks the expertise a therapist offers will always have a place in her life.

“It provides a perspective that I can’t find anywhere else,” she said. “The counseling center has helped me work through past trauma. They have given me the tools I need in order to cope with my anxiety and triggers. Not only do I see a difference but so does my family.”

Amie Schaeffer wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.

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