Rutgers University-Camden doctoral student Jared Hunter began attending weekly counseling through the campus’s Student Wellness Center in the fall of 2020 to help him manage anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the early months of the pandemic, Hunter said he felt isolated and anxious, and drank excessively to try to cope.
“My counselor has helped me understand my emotions. I’ve been practicing a lot with sitting with unpleasant feelings, and not seeing them as negative, and that’s been really helpful,” said the 27-year-old, who holds two master’s degrees from Rutgers-Camden.
Hunter is a community organizer working on his doctorate in public affairs. The Woodbury resident said he is grateful that he can attend sessions weekly. If he had to pay for counseling out of pocket, he said he probably could only afford to go once or twice a month.
Rutgers-Camden recently received additional state aid to boost services to students dealing with exceptionally challenging times. Neuza Serra, director of the Rutgers-Camden Student Wellness Center, said anxiety was already on the rise when the pandemic hit – along with a growing demand for counseling services on campus. But during the 2020-21 academic year the need for counseling grew even more.
Nearly 700 students sought services, she said, an increase of 76 percent compared to 2015-16. Appointments increased 43 percent over that period. And with Rutgers-Camden students back on campus this fall some face a new source of anxiety: classmates and roommates who are "over" the pandemic and aren’t following precautions when off campus.
“That is only exacerbating anxiety for those who are afraid of getting COVID-19 or giving it to an at-risk family member,” Serra said.
“We are swamped,” said Serra, who is thankful the fiscal 2022 state budget includes an extra $250,000 for mental health services, enabling her to hire more staff. The center is adding a psychiatrist a second day per week, along with a three-day-a-week therapist who will share the caseload with the four full-time clinicians, Serra said.
“We felt that it was critical that mental health services be available to students as they continue their education,’’ said state Assemblyman William W. Spearman, D-Camden. After learning about the strain the pandemic was putting on students at Rutgers-Camden, “I began working with my budget committee colleagues to secure funding to support our students,” Spearman said.
Camden state Assemblyman William F. Moen Jr., who co-sponsored the funding resolution, said: “It is my sincere hope that this additional funding will help every student receive the assistance they need.” Moen cited a survey conducted last winter that found the pandemic caused more than 90 percent of college students to experience negative mental health symptoms. “Rutgers-Camden students, like all college students, deserve support and resources from our state. The well-being of all students in New Jersey is paramount,” he said.
With the pandemic’s onset and classes moving online, students struggled with isolation and depression, and some dealt with job loss, food scarcity and domestic abuse, Serra said. Still, some students were comfortable with online learning, and are now struggling with returning to in-person classes, she said.
“At college, you’re dealing with the process of becoming an adult, and now you throw in the pandemic and you have a much more complicated picture,” Serra said.
Rutgers-Camden largely serves students living off campus, many coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, Serra said. Some are raising families and working two jobs. About a quarter of students are the first in their families to attend college.
“On top of the normal anxieties of attending college, navigating college is completely new to them,” Serra said.
To accommodate a commuting student body, the wellness center has daily walk-in hours. Students may also be referred for services by faculty and staff, who have received training and/or information on how to recognize signs a student is in distress, and how to speak to them in a way that minimizes their resistance to seeking help, Serra said. Many professors provide mental health resources in their syllabus, she said.
Students can also call to schedule an initial appointment, during which a therapist assesses the student’s situation. The student is assigned a psychologist and added to the counselor’s schedule as soon as possible, Serra said. Some students attend therapy for only a few sessions, while others continue with it throughout their college years, she said. The average number of sessions is 10.
The center reaches out to students in other ways. Its student advisory board is active on social media, sharing messages to help reduce stigma around mental health and tips for de-stressing, Serra said. This fall, the center is running two three-week virtual skills-based sessions. One is focused on dealing with depression, the other, anxiety, Serra said. Students learn how not to make every problem a catastrophe while using small but effective techniques to reduce anxiety.
The center intends to bring back De-Stress Zone and the annual health fair, events that were canceled last year due to the pandemic. De-Stress Zone is offered the week before finals each semester and includes chair massages, therapy dogs, and coloring stations, Serra said.