WU mental health services to shift online, discontinue operations and make new adjustments in the wake of COVID-19

Ali Gold | Senior Editor

Washington University mental health resources are grappling with how to continue helping students from afar amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that has emptied campus.

Nathalie Austin | Student Life

Washington University announced that spring break will be extended to March 23. After that, all classes will be held online until April 30.

While the Habif Health and Wellness Center is transitioning to digital-focused services, Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H) will maintain its hotline on reduced hours. Uncle Joe’s will cease operations for the remainder of the semester.

“This is a really difficult transitional time. A lot of people are going home to a wide variety of situations…and just this huge change in routine, and being in a pandemic can really spark mental health issues that might have been present before or might not have been present,” Student Union Health and Wellness Committee Chair sophomore Gaby Smith said. “This is a really stressful and difficult time for everyone. It’s important to access resources.”

Thomas Brounk, director of mental health services at Habif Health and Wellness Center, said Habif has moved all operations to telecommuting and is not offering any on-site services. Regardless of whether students are staying on campus or have returned to their hometowns, to access Habif, they should call 314-935-6695 between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“[Students who call that number] will get connected with our mental health appointment coordinator,” Brounk said. “Then she will figure out what is best and we can then schedule a mental health check-up or check-in with one of our clinicians.”

As a part of this conversation, a care manager may also help students find a licensed therapist near them. Students can also check psychologytoday.com to find a therapist, he said. If students need additional funding to support therapy, they can reach out to the Office of Student Success or Student Financial Services.

“Habif’s ability to provide treatment online is going to be limited based on where the student is,” Brounk said. “There are certain ethical and licensing issues that come into play when you start to talk about providing that service in another state in which we are not licensed. I know there is national legislation right now trying to be proposed to put a waiver on those barriers due to state law.”

After business hours or on weekends, students will continue to have access to an after-hours support line at 314-935-6666. They can follow the prompts to be connected with an after-hours clinician.

Brounk recommends students consider Therapy Assistance Online (TAO), an interactive seven-to-nine-week-long interactive web-based program for mild to moderate anxiety and depression. The evidence-backed program allows students access to online modules 24/7. The mindfulness app Sanvello is offering free premium access throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

“Students should be going to our website because we are updating that information daily as things change and we gain access to more services and opportunities,” Brounk said.

S.A.R.A.H resumed service March 22 with reduced hours from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. everyday at 314-935-8080, according to a statement published on their social media. Outside of these hours, they recommend that students call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network 12-hour hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Uncle Joe’s peer counseling has closed its phone helpline, citing a “variety of logistical, policy and safety-related concerns” in a social media post.

The 54th SU Executive Board was sworn in early this past week to begin addressing student needs. Though they are unable to work together face-to-face, they are using videoconferencing tools such as Zoom to host meetings about how to address student mental health needs.

“Because social distancing is a recommendation from the CDC, and we are recommended not to even interact with people, a lot of students, for example, are being dissuaded from talking to their therapists back in their hometowns or they don’t have therapists in person,” SU President freshman Ranen Miao said. “There are also questions about resources for students who utilize a lot of in-person support groups, Habif or other therapists funded by the Mental Health Fund. We’re trying to make sure we are able to acknowledge these issues.”

According to Miao, SU is considering how to replicate important mental health resources, such as visiting a therapist or support group, through an online modality.

“We’ve heard from a lot of students who want a lot of different things funded, whether it be meditation apps, online therapy or in-person therapy,” Miao said. “We’ve asked Habif to produce things like a guide to how to find a therapist in your local area, how to use online therapy, how to be mindful, how to stay safe right now.”

Habif has found that social media has been an excellent tool in distributing such information. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Habif’s Instagram (@washu_habif) has seen a tripling in followers. The page has already hosted several guided meditations and mindfulness exercises, as well as a video about how to find a therapist who takes student health insurance.

“We are working with our health promotion folks to put more and more videos on coping with being home with your parents, being unable to leave the house,” Brounk said. “We are going to work on continuing to expand that resource as well.”

Moving forward, SU will continue to meet with leaders not only in Habif, but also in Student Financial Services, Student Affairs, the University library system, Title IX, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Student Success, among others. Using this information, SU has developed a web page congregating student petitions, health and wellness resources and news, which Miao recommends students check frequently.

Brounk encourages students to eat, sleep, exercise and check in with friends. He also believes that students should express and recognize their emotions in response to this crisis.

“This is a time where people feel like they always have to stay positive and anything that isn’t positive is somehow unhelpful,” Brounk said. “But there is a lot of loss––in terms of freedom, in terms of safety, being able to freely connect face-to-face with friends, graduation celebrations, family weddings, vacations, there’s a lot of loss that has occurred. It would be helpful to just acknowledge that. Keeping perspective is helpful—and it’s also okay to talk about and express feelings connected to that loss.”

Editor’s note: S.A.R.A.H released a statement March 26 announcing that their hotline would not be active for the remainder of the semester.

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