Coming back to campus: mental health at Rider

By Kaitlyn McCormick

Shifting back into in-person learning and working environments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated underlying mental health concerns both in the general public and college campuses.

From a student perspective, transitioning into a new learning environment can naturally bring on a slew of anxiety and overwhelmedness, but when this change follows 18 months of isolation and worldly concern for public health, there is no wonder that mental health may be less-than-stellar.

Student and faculty perspectives

Sophomore biochemistry major Emma Zinser explained in an email to The Rider News that to her, “mental health encompasses not just our emotional health or psychological health, but our overall well-being.

“Mental health influences how we work, think, feel and act towards ourselves and others,” she wrote.

Mental health affects every form of daily function, and for students and faculty alike, juggling a work-life balance can become increasingly difficult if there does not exist a mental environment conducive to success.

Laurel Harris, an English professor at Rider, described mental health as “having good boundaries.”

“Boundaries has been really important, especially as work has moved into the home,” said Harris.

Harris also provided a faculty perspective on mental health and developing a work-life balance after coming out of what she called the cocoon that was the past 18 months of isolation.

“I think with faculty jobs there’s always that struggle because it can eat up all your time if you let it, but I think it’s gotten worse in the pandemic because all of the other responsibilities have gotten more intense. … It’s exhausting to prioritize,” said Harris.

While Rider does have mental health services available through counseling in the wellness center, some students have taken it upon themselves to get outside help.

“Honestly, I did not have the best experience with Rider’s mental health services. … In the end, I decided to seek out counseling through my insurance, which is not an option for everyone. … There’s a lot of work to be done surrounding the mental health resources on campus, and I think that needs to start now,” wrote Zinser.

Student leaders making a change

Sophomore actuarial science major Elizabeth Malicki has taken it upon herself to restart Rider’s chapter of Active Minds, a national organization meant to decrease the stigma behind mental illness.

“The club is all about having informative discussions about how people truly experience mental illness and decreasing misinformation that is spread through day to day conversations. We will also be working on increasing the conversations around campus and working with mental health services at Rider to increase the helpfulness of their services,” Malicki wrote in an email to The Rider News.

Mental health initiatives at Rider have also been at the forefront of the Student Government Association (SGA)’s plans for this academic year. SGA President Elizabeth O’Hara explained through email that “just as it was challenging to transition to a virtual platform, it is challenging to transition back to an in-person environment. As students and faculty come back to campus, there is a huge concern for burnout, as we all are trying to maintain a routine and balance academics with involvement and social life.”

This summer, SGA members participated in an external review of counseling services at Rider.

“It was meant to delve into more specific actions to assure counseling is meeting the needs of students. From that discussion, we gave several concrete suggestions to the external consultants and the administration,” wrote O’Hara.

These suggestions include making counselors and counseling services more approachable and easier to access, as well as increasing counselor diversity and making resources more readily available to student-athletes and ambassador training for student leaders in the community.

This October, SGA will also be launching a survey to gather information about students’ use of counseling services.

“This survey is meant for any student. … We are trying to get an understanding of the factors contributing to students’ use of the services if counselors are creating an environment conducive to seeking help and progressing toward the student’s goals, and what areas of the services can be improved the most,” wrote O’Hara.

SGA’s Vice President for University Affairs Andrew Bernstein wrote via email, “During the height of COVID-19, and even still, mental health remains a top priority for students across the country that are transitioning back to in-person classes. When the coronavirus first began, SGA implemented the ‘Bright App’ to provide mental health resources and services to our students, and we continue to search for more effective ways to help students.”

SGA’s Health and Safety Committee Chair Hayley Ashe also contributed by email, writing, “The Health and Safety Committee remains dedicated to pursuing and maintaining mental health and well-being initiatives on campus. … The Health and Safety Committee has started to discuss how we can best address pandemic-related trauma and ensure proper resources, and how we can best serve and support the greater Rider community in the transition back to in-person learning in regards to mental health.”

Ashe also included information about SGA’s plans to implement a Wellness Room on campus where students can decompress.

New initiatives on the horizon

In addition to these student-led changes, Rider’s counseling services are recentering their efforts to provide support for the community. Vice President of Student Affairs, Leanna Fenneberg and Interim Director of Counseling Services, Anissa Moody both contributed to the discussion surrounding Rider’s mental health initiatives via an email interview.

“Rider was just named as a recipient of a generous 2-year, $500,000 grant, supporting our Project Inclusion Equity Retention (PIER) initiative,” wrote Fenneberg. “One initiative focuses on student mental well-being, and will include enhancing Counseling Center staff and facilitating additional training and outreach on mental health on campus.”

Moody expanded on the major shifts currently being made to counseling services, including opportunities for students to receive support both individually and through various workshops, inclusive settings and diverse groups.

“Every day we’re out in the Rider community connecting with students, faculty and staff. As we increase our staffing capacity, I expect our center to be a beacon of hope for students on our campus,” wrote Moody.

Moving through everyday life, one of the most important facets of mental health is the ability to be honest and seek help when it is needed. Help can come in a multitude of forms, whether that be setting boundaries, speaking to family or friends, seeing a counselor or taking prescribed medication. Everyone’s mental health journey will look different, and creating an environment conducive to student and faculty health and success should be at the forefront of Rider’s priorities.

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