Student affairs leaders get real on counseling after COVID

"If we really pause a moment and think about what [our staff] has been through over the last couple of years, perhaps some of our campuses would not have been able to function," said Michelle Batista, vice president of student services at Lake Tahoe Community College.

Student mental health on college campuses has taken a toll in the years after the pandemic, straining in-house counseling services and affecting student engagement.

In a panel hosted by TimelyCare, two student affairs leaders explained how they remain invigorated to help students despite the professional and logistical challenges that higher education has faced in the last three years.

“I would encourage you to stay encouraged, continue the good fight and do this incredible work,” said Davida Haywood, vice president of student affairs at Johnson C. Smith University (N.C.).

Haywood was joined by Lake Tahoe Community College’s Michelle Batista, vice president of student services.

Caring for caregivers

The webinar specifically addressed how schools could create inclusive counseling environments for a diverse range of students. Haywood and Batista also spoke about the overarching challenge of delivering a vital resource on campus amid the surge in demand from students coming from all walks of life.

“When you layer upon what our students were returning to school with, it was a lot even as a professional to digest,” Haywood said. “Even as a practitioner, I’m not sure we learned a theory of how to deal with something so massive as this.”

Batista recognizes that for student affairs to run effectively, she must keep as close an eye on the well-being of her counselors as she does the students. To curate a healthy environment for her staff, she regularly initiated wellness checks and destigmatized the notion of taking a mental health day to relax and decompress.

“If we really pause a moment and think about what [our staff] has been through over the last couple of years, perhaps some of our campuses would not have been able to function,” Batista said.

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Engage the community in mental health care

The challenge for being a counselor in a post-pandemic environment is that the need among students isn’t going to dissipate for years to come, the two leaders said. For the next 10 years or so, they will deal with students who experienced the pandemic at earlier stages in their childhood, potentially creating lags in social-emotional development.

Haywood and Batista believe that to curb a mental health crisis, colleges and universities must encourage the entire community to destigmatize mental health care by being more proactive in identifying at-risk students. For example, students and faculty who notice a student struggling should attempt to cultivate belonging and care rather than scold.

“I think students serve as the No. 1 referral resource for each other,” Batista said.

Effective counseling across all identities 

A community of members who support the mental health of others should ensure that they do so without regard to race, ethnicity or gender identity, Haywood said. She challenged her colleagues to think about ways to personally connect with students despite their differences.

“I want to make sure there’s not one element or piece that creates an environment where a student ultimately leaves our institution,” Haywood said. “Our jobs certainly are to help students develop holistically, but we also have an obligation to watch that student walk across the stage.”

One crucial way institutions can ensure their student affairs office is representative is by tracking patients’ gender, ethnicities and identities and ensuring those are reflected among staff. To fill in the gaps, Batista uses TimelyCare’s telehealth counselors and therapists of intersectional identities. Students can choose their telehealth provider based on their profile.

At the end of the day, making an entire campus aware of the challenges of emerging student cohorts can bring the community together.

“You’re not in this alone,” Batista said. “We’re shifting students from thinking they can do this alone to realizing that we’re all in a community. We’re doing this together. We got you.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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