issue Community Health 2024

Caring For Our Students

By Judy Masterson
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

Editor’s Note: Dr. Julie Waites passed away unexpectedly in December 2023. The following conversation, which was planned for this edition of Helix and appears with the approval of her family, reflects her legacy of service to the 鶹Ӱ community and her deep commitment to mental health and personalized care.

Julie Atkins Waites, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, director of 鶹Ӱ's Student Counseling Service (SCS) and associate director of the Student Health and Wellness Center, called the increased focus and conversation around mental health "a wonderful thing."

Helix: The U.S. Surgeon General has called mental health “the defining public health crisis of our time.” That’s reflected among students in higher education, who are experiencing “all-time high rates” of depression, anxiety and suicidality, according to the latest Healthy Minds Study/Student Survey. The study also showed that students are seeking and receiving more help than in the past.

Dr. Waites: I take a dichotomous position regarding this topic. Is it a crisis? Yes, absolutely. But let’s stop and think about our history and how we previously conceptualized mental health. It was very stigmatized, not spoken about and kept to oneself, or within one’s very close circles of community. I think that the conversation has shifted where now we’re talking openly. We’re destigmatizing. We’re also getting more information and a clearer picture of all the dynamic aspects involved in individuals’ mental health.

What’s the role of our physical and social environment in mental health?

Today’s youth are looking into the future, and they’re seeing circumstances that are very threatening on an existential level. A planet that’s in duress. Political and national landscapes that are divisive. Violence at home and abroad. Youth have grown up in a culture where we know about tragedies happening all across the world in real time. Youth are also feeling lonelier in the age of social media as we connect to devices rather than people. These are examples of physical and social environments which are contrary to what is needed for good mental health.

Can you expand on how counselors may personalize care?

Big picture, we recommend a personalized plan of care for each student accessing our service based on their unique symptoms, needs and goals. During treatment, we teach new skills personalized to each student’s specific needs and address patterns of behavior. We want to facilitate self-reflection and increase self-monitoring for healthier ways of behaving. Treatment has to be personal to be effective.

“Treatment has to be personal to be effective.”

How do we help our students deal with stress and adversity? How are we focusing on prevention?

At 鶹Ӱ, we collaborate across the Division of Student Success and Wellness, as well as with other partners on campus to offer prevention programming to aid students in adjusting to graduate and medical education. This starts at orientation and continues throughout the time that they’re here. We offer psychoeducational programming on a variety of mental health-related topics both regularly and when critical incidents arise. One recent and very well-attended program was “Executive Functioning: Tips and Tricks to Survive Graduate School.” Simply offering mental health counseling at 鶹Ӱ is an important aspect of prevention and aiding students at times of personal stress and adversity.

There’s been a movement to reframe mental health away from avoidance of certain emotions and toward management of stress and inevitable feelings of disappointment and sadness. Thoughts?

That’s a topic that really speaks to me. I identify as a relationally-focused clinician. I use a lot of emotion-focused treatments in my work. A big tenet of that approach is normalizing emotions. It’s about having a more accepting and less judgmental, less stigmatized view of all of our human experiences and using tools to manage and understand them with less tension and shame.

How is 鶹Ӱ balancing the increased demand for mental health services with the limited capacity of its student counseling service?

At SCS, we have a very clear scope of service and operate within this. We see our role as aiding students in getting the right care for their specific, unique needs and goals. We consider personalized care to be the best and most effective approach. And that’s all part of a relationship that’s trusting. Our students can be confident that the clinicians they see at 鶹Ӱ are really attuned to our scope — what we can safely provide and when we need to seek other care options. That goes to creating more trusted clinical partnerships to offer personalized care. That’s a challenge, because Lake County is lacking in mental health resources, as is the case now in many places. There’s real opportunity for those who want to support an area of medicine that has traditionally been undersupported and underfunded.

Digital mental health technology is helping to expand access to care, as millions of people turn to apps and doctors and patients begin to use prescription digital therapeutics. Do you see technology as an answer to the mental health workforce shortage?

Sort of. Technology is allowing us greater access to licensed mental health professionals working within our jurisdiction. This is important to folks especially in areas that are under-resourced for mental health care. However, technology is not addressing all the concerns. Some individuals are not suitable candidates to receive care via technology for a variety of reasons. Additionally, I believe important aspects of personalized care are lost over a screen, phone or app. Lastly, there are equity concerns with accessing technology.

“We’re conceptualizing that mental health needs to belong to us all.”

How do you see mental health at 鶹Ӱ and in higher education evolving?

In university counseling, we are becoming a little bit like urgent care centers in that we are navigating urgent situations and preventative care. But we’re less frequently addressing care needs for students in between these two positions. We’re conceptualizing that mental health needs to belong to us all. We’re conducting more mental health awareness training for faculty, staff and students. We are also doing a lot to help students get connected to resources — not necessarily just mental health resources like medication or a more specialized kind of therapy — but also to student groups on campus and other resources that can help meet their needs. In addition to clinical care, we’re helping to create structures that promote positive mental health and serving the campus as mental health consultants. I think having a comprehensive counseling center on campus is one of the most effective things a university can do in promoting the value of mental health on campus and retaining students throughout their time at university.

How are you feeling about the future?

I am feeling good. There’s an increased focus on mental health — a conversation happening both nationally and at 鶹Ӱ — which is to me a wonderful thing.

Judy Masterson is a staff writer with 鶹Ӱ’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.