Mental health services escalate in priority with pandemic stress for Chicago graduate students, professors

mental health
Kasia Crain (right) places a comforting hand on Ashlyn Dentz' shoulder at Pritzker School of Law. Students often turn to friends or family for comfort, but sometimes counseling services and other mental health resources are necessary. (Alyssa Muir/MEDILL)

By Alyssa Muir
Medill Reports

Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law thoroughly highlighted the university’s various mental health services during orientation week, according to first-year law student Gaby Menashe.

“(Northwestern) really emphasized that the services were there for us whenever we needed,” Menashe said. “They basically told us that the law school is one of the biggest users of their services.”

She added that the services are easily accessible from both the Evanston and Chicago campuses.

“There’s a ton of counselors here in Chicago. It’s nice how accessible it all feels,” Menashe said.

But experiences providing up-front resources can vary widely for students at different schools and even at the same school.

Second-year nursing student Sofia Halili attended DePaul University for her undergraduate studies and stayed there for nursing school. As someone who regularly assisted at freshman orientation, Halili witnessed first-hand the large emphasis the school placed on its campus resources. So, it came as quite a shock to her when she attended her own nursing orientation and little time was devoted to the topic.

“I have lots of friends in the program that are clueless about the resources here,” Halili said. “It felt like (DePaul) expected everyone to know how to navigate those resources at a university-level already, but that’s a harsh assumption because every undergrad experience is different.”

The DePaul University Counseling Services website states that “All full- and part-time graduate and undergraduate DePaul students can receive initial consultations, triage and referrals to mental health professionals from University Counseling Services.”

A DePaul Counseling staff psychologist didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Jillion Caldwell, a licensed clinical social worker at National Louis University, stated that maneuvering the university’s services can also be a challenge for graduate students there.

“Not all of our graduate students are on our main Chicago campus, and some are completely remote,” Caldwell said. “So sometimes their access to that support from the university isn’t the same as it is for undergrads.”

In 2018, a Harvard study concluded that graduate students were more than three times more likely to experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general population. The study, which surveyed over 500 students at various economics PhD programs, also found that only 27% of those with symptoms of depression were receiving treatment.

The data reinforces other findings for many in the counseling field.

“You see that finding in many studies, and I think it’s especially prevalent for underrepresented groups who might be isolated,” said Alexandra Novakovic, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul.

And with the pandemic removing or limiting many of the hands-on aspects that initially attract graduate students to programs or adding new stress, nursing students like Halili say campus services become even more important.

“The pandemic added this extra hardship for students, whether it be virtual classes or being in isolation, and we need to see that reflected in our resources,” Halili said.

Halili and Menashe both noted that while they understood the necessity of predominantly remote counseling over the past couple of years, it has been difficult for them and their peers to manage. The health concerns combined with the increased separation from friends and families have “exacerbated” the need for services, according to Menashe.

The Northwestern Counseling and Psychological Services reads, “Students interested in services at Evanston CAPS can schedule a phone appointment or call in for a same day virtual appointment.”

Novakovic, who is not involved in DePaul’s counseling services, stressed the importance of students being able to receive timely on-campus help, especially as the pandemic continues to severely impact the mental health of the general population.

“I’ve read that (DePaul counseling) is hiring and also trying to restructure,” Novakovic said. “It’s part of (students’) tuition, and they are entitled to those services on campus. With the pandemic we’re finding that there’s so much need for these services, that it’s now harder and harder to find providers out in the community.”

And while there has been improvement, there is still more to be done.

“The mental health field needs to do a lot of work on the accessibility problem,” Caldwell said. “It’s not just (a problem) on college campuses or grad schools, but there definitely needs to be increased accessibility to counseling there.”

Menashe pointed to the lengthy period it takes for students to connect with a counselor.

“The intake process could be streamlined,” Menashe said. “I definitely had some specific things I wanted to talk about with my counselor, but by the time we met, I kind of resolved them already.”

The Director of Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services did not respond for comment.

The unique feeling of still being a student while also being considered an “adult” with large financial pressures was also emphasized by those in the field.

“There’s just more stressors that come with grad school,” Caldwell said. “Some people work full-time or have families, and there’s also less support all-around.”

Alyssa Muir is a sports reporter at Medill from Tampa, Florida. You can follow Alyssa on Twitter at @alyssa_muir21.