IWS adjusts offerings as pandemic poses challenges to mental health

Nigel Jaffe

Beginning April 6, Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS) will provide remote transition planning sessions in which students can work with therapists to assess their current or anticipated need for mental health care moving forward and develop a plan for accessing support, through either providers in their home community or teletherapy platforms offered by the College.

Students have had access to Talkspace, a service that lets users text and video chat with a therapist through a secure app or web platform, since September 2019, when the College became the first institution of higher education to partner with the company. Talkspace will continue to be available to students free of charge, offering one live video psychotherapy session per month and unlimited messaging five days per week.

“This expansive resource is especially important now as our students are spread out across the globe, with anticipated needs well beyond semester’s end,” said Director of IWS Wendy Adam. “We encourage students to utilize this incredible mechanism for support during this difficult time, whether or not they’ve utilized IWS services historically.”

Additionally, students on the College’s Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance plan will have access to Well Connection Telehealth Services, which allows users to visit a healthcare provider via live video. Peer institutions in Massachusetts such as Amherst and MIT have also advertised Well Connection to their students.

IWS has updated its website to reflect the measures taken in response to COVID-19 and the new focus on transition planning, but information about telehealth has not been widely distributed to the student body in recent weeks. A Record survey this week that was sent to 500 people and received 181 responses found that 93 percent of respondents said they did not use Talkspace at all this semester, while 16 percent said they are not sure what Talkspace is. Meanwhile, 96 percent of respondents said they are not familiar with Well Connection Telehealth Services.

Graphic by Joey Fox/The Williams Record

Every student who sought services from IWS this academic year—more than 700 in total—will be contacted individually and offered two 30-minute sessions, which will be conducted by telephone, not video, and will focus strictly on transition planning and making sure students are acquainted with resources like Talkspace that will be available to them in coming weeks and months. Students who did not seek services from IWS will also be able to schedule transition planning sessions upon request, and all students will be able to use the health portal to self-schedule another appointment with any available clinician in order to receive additional support with their transition plan.

In the meantime, IWS will continue to offer a call line through which students with urgent mental health concerns can connect with an on-call therapist at all times. All work by clinicians at IWS will be conducted remotely for the remainder of the semester.

“The IWS intent is to provide an organized and clinically consistent way for students to plan for their ongoing mental health and support needs through the beginning of the Fall semester, 2020, given the trying global times we are all experiencing,” Adam said. “Much like the changes we made throughout this year focusing on equity of access to IWS support, our COVID-19 focus on transition planning for all students, as well as offering on-call therapist crisis services and telehealth services to all students, maintains our commitment to ensuring accessibility to support for the entire community of Williams.”

In addition to telehealth and transition planning, Adam pointed to the page linked on the IWS website listing resources and guides to maintaining healthy mental habits during a period marked by social isolation, economic instability and widespread uncertainty. The psychology department has added a page on its website containing several similar resources, including recommendations from the American Psychological Association on how to cope with psychological stress and uncertainty.

The Record survey found that 58 percent of students believe their mental health has suffered recently as a result of major life changes brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “The stress and uncertainty have definitely been difficult,” Elizabeth Hughes ’22 said. “I am in a fairly fortunate situation, but even so, the move to online classes and the inability to see my friends on campus and at home has taken a toll. I think the worst part for me is not knowing when it will end and when things can return to ‘normal.’”

Hughes said that she tried using Talkspace earlier this year, but found the platform did not offer the kind of support she felt she needed at that time. “It felt impersonal, and I didn’t like either having to type or voice record to answer questions the therapist had to help with my current situation,” she said. “For me, a real, face-to-face conversation is much more helpful, and even with the once-a-month video session they are offering, I don’t think it would really be useful for me.”

Some professors have taken it upon themselves to provide their students with resources on staying mentally healthy, as did Professor of Psychology Laurie Heatherington and Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephanie Steele, both of whom teach clinical psychology and have practiced as therapists. Heatherington noted that faculty with expertise related to mental and physical health may be more likely to pass on resources from their fields in times like these.

Associate Professor of English Bernie Rhie, who teaches several courses involving meditation and leads a weekly Zen practice group, has created a meditation podcast series called “Intro to Zen Online” that he said is aimed at helping members of the College community “cope with the psychological toll” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each episode provides a guided meditation, with the goal of helping listeners arrive at a “mindful awareness” of their present experience and develop a comfort with observing one’s thoughts and feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Graphic courtesy of Bernie Rhie and Hailey Herring-Newbound ’16.

Rhie said that meditation isn’t for everyone, but since it has helped him through times of comparable difficulty, he decided to use the podcast format to share it with the broader community. “I definitely don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for the profound distress that’s being created by the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Each of us has to figure out what works best for each of us, individually. So, for some, meditation could be incredibly helpful right now, but it may not appeal to, or work for, everyone. But I think it’s definitely worth a try.”

Rhie said that it is in times like these, when the pandemic has negatively affected the mental health community members across the board and healthy living practices are hard to come by, that meditation can prove most useful.

“One of the things I appreciate so much about Buddhist meditation is that it’s perfect for those times when everything seems to be falling apart, when we are standing at (or even tumbling over) the edge of what we can tolerate,” he said. “Indeed, I would say that meditation may even be easier to practice when things are hard or difficult… when we feel good, like life is already good, it can be hard to make ourselves meditate. It’s precisely when things feel like hell (like we’re hitting some kind of bottom) that I think meditation can feel most urgently necessary, and when it has the most to offer us.”

Heatherington recommended that students who are looking for meaningful ways to fill their time think about what they can do in the service of others in their community. “It’s the question of, ‘What are the ways in which people could do something to help others?’” she said. “Those little things—the act of helping other people—can feel so good. They can be an antidote to the rumination.”

With the start of classes close on the horizon, Steele and Heatherington noted that students and faculty will need to work together to stay mentally healthy given the intensity of academics on top of other stressors.

“Professors may be able to offer support to encourage and promote student mental health by maintaining an open, flexible, and unassuming stance,” Steele said. “Meeting students where they are (virtually!), perhaps through one-on-one Google Meet or Zoom meetings, offering space for students to talk about their concerns (both related and unrelated to Williams scholarship and activities) and providing opportunities to stay connected and productive for the remaining six weeks of our spring semester may offer key ways to provide a listening and encouraging ear, structure and consistency in an uncertain time and remind us all of what it means to be a part of the Williams community.”