Counseling center wrestles pandemic challenges

Director addresses student concerns as well as modality changes

Kyle Morrison, News Editor

The Student Counseling Center is housed in Watson Hall, appointments this quarter are taking place remotely. (Marissa Lordahl)

In response to COVID-19, the Seattle Pacific University counseling center has made major departmental changes. The most obvious change is the switch from in person to remote sessions.  

Despite all their preparation, as well as the challenges 2020 has had on individual’s mental health, the counseling center has actually been less busy this fall than it was last year.

“We’ve had a huge decline. In the spring, we thought we would have a lot of people, because it was so new and shocking and classes going remote, and we had about one student contact us each week,” Director of Seattle Pacific Counseling Services Sharon Barr-Jeffery said. “This fall we’ve had about 25 contacts per week, which is healthy, that’s a good amount. Typical falls, we would have 100 the first week and 50 the next couple weeks.”

According to Barr-Jeffrey, this lack of traffic can be attributed to many factors. With only online appointments available, instead of normal in person drop in options, many students may see the counseling center as less accessible. Barr-Jeffrey also thinks that students, for better or for worse, may have just adapted to the new realities of the situation.

“The situation is not going to change, which makes people not have a sense that counseling could help with this,” Jefferey explained.

Barr-Jeffrey hopes that students in need will ultimately come to the counseling center for help. With less traffic, counseling has prioritized community outreach.

“In the past we had so much demand, we literally had very little time,” said Barr-Jeffrey. “If someone invited us to come speak we would, but now we’ve been very intentional. We never had instagram before, which we now do, and we keep that going everyday… our website hadn’t been updated in seven or eight years, and now it’s up to date.”

Students who have gone to counseling have had good experiences. 

“It was very helpful,” fourth year Mercy Alsworth said. “I went online first and made a reservation, and they just talked through different things with me, and it was very helpful, just like during this time, I felt very stressed, and it helped me kinda calm those fears.” 

Some students, who moved on campus from other states, have used the counseling center as a way to feel more at home despite the ongoing pandemic and community restrictions on social interactions.

“I recently visited them because of COVID, and it’s been very helpful, they’ve referred me to other places, and it’s just helped me feel more at home since I am from the east coast,” First year Hannah Miller said.

Last week, a petition authored by Hill Resident Advisor Pierce Papke asked for Gwinn eating groups, which are groups of three to five residents on the same floor in the four SPU residence halls, to be considered family groups.

This change would allow those students to visit each other’s rooms, while being exempt from other community guidelines regarding social distancing. In a since redacted section of the petition, Papke cited a backlog in counseling services as a reason for these changes.

Some students on campus have had problems when it comes to wait times.

“I would use the counseling services on campus, but I’ve heard they’re super backed up, so I don’t even want to try,’’ Freshman Cookie Yitbarek explained.

Barr-Jeffrey wants all students to know that depending on need, same day and immediate crisis counseling is available, but that in lower leverage situations, SPU counseling center wait times are consistent with other counseling entities in the area. 

“Our policy is that the first time a student contacts us, to see them within a week, so every student who makes a contact, will have an appointment within one week.” Barr-Jeffrey explained. 

“If there’s any urgency or they’re in crisis we’ll see them in the same day … if we see a student for that first visit, talk to them about what’s going on, and we assess that they are safe to wait, then we will match them up with a counselor, but their first appointment might not be next week, it might be the week after… that’s really usual if you contact someone in the Seattle area.” 

Every student on campus, or living in the state of Washington has full access to the counseling center, but students taking their classes online in another state may not be able to utilize SPU counseling services. This is because of differences in state health laws.

“Every counselor has a different training background, and a different licensure … There are some states that honor an exchange, Barr-Jeffrey explained. “So it’s like, can we see our student, who we’ve been seeing every week?”

Barr-Jeffrey said that the University of Texas created a database, for all college mental health professionals, so that they can see which states allow them to offer their services to students in need.

Barr-Jeffrey explained that they don’t have access to any SPU students currently residing in California because of the state’s strict guidelines.

The counseling center has had to adapt just as much as any department in 2020. Despite all that has changed, they are still coming up with new ideas to address the community’s needs.

“We do have a new program called, ‘Let’s Talk’ that’s on Fridays and I think that would be a good one for someone who is skeptical about counseling, or hasn’t done it before, or maybe isn’t ready to go all in.” Barr-Jeffrey explained “It’s just a counselor available for a couple hours on Friday, and they have an open room [on Zoom].”