Yasmine Halmane, Contributing Photographer

When the pandemic hit and students went home, Scott Gigante’s GRD ’23 weekly group therapy sessions were cancelled. Six months later, they have yet to start back up. 

Amidst the confusion, Gigante also lost touch with the individual counselor from Yale Health he was seeing on a biweekly basis. It took about two or three phone calls and three to four months for Gigante to hear from his counselor again.

Last week, Yale Mental Health and Counseling announced plans to be more accessible to students. The Yale College Council and YMHC unveiled a joint initiative to increase access to mental health care. In the coming weeks, students can request same-day intake appointment times on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The clinician that evaluates them will remain their contact person until they are assigned a new counselor. But Gigante did not have access to these new reforms during the past summer.

“One of the consequences of having untreated mental health issues is it’s often hard to take the initiative to reboot mental health treatment when one is not receiving treatment,” Gigante told the News. “As somebody who has benefited a lot from regular mental health treatment, losing that at a time when mental health became more difficult certainly made an already difficult time worse.”

This was not the first time Gigante had lost contact with the University’s mental health providers. Gigante found out his previous therapist had left Yale only after his next appointment was cancelled without warning. Following these two incidents, he requested that Yale connect him with a therapist outside of its network. Yale accommodated that request quickly, he said. Since then, Gigante has been meeting with his new therapist, which Yale covers.

Along with the physical health challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the past few months have heightened the need for mental health support and services. Nine students and faculty members interviewed by the News cited a host of additional stressors and mental health concerns at this time. They spoke of social isolation, financial instability, visa issues, fears for family members’ health and increased workload in their online classes.

In an August report, Students Unite Now, a student organization dedicated to making Yale more equitable for students on financial aid, claimed Yale Mental Health & Counseling was not adequately addressing students’ needs. In interviews with the News, multiple students reported losing contact or knowing someone who lost contact with a therapist when students were sent home last March. YCC President Aliesa Bahri ’22 said at least two students reached out to her with this issue.

“I think the pandemic broadly would be considered what’s called a mass trauma” said Sarah Lowe, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences. “Mass traumas are potentially life-threatening events that affect not just individuals, but entire communities. Typically disasters and terrorism have been studied, but the pandemic would fit into this definition as well.”

During and in the aftermath of these events, people are at an increased risk for trauma-related disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as mental health conditions including depression and generalized anxiety, Lowe said.

According to Chief of Mental Health & Counseling Paul Hoffman, despite the decreased enrollment at Yale this semester, MHC is seeing the same number of students seeking treatment.

Newly published research suggests that mental health resources may now be more important than ever. A June report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that younger adults are experiencing disproportionately worse mental health during the pandemic.

According to Lowe, the pandemic is unique because it’s widespread and long-lasting. People cannot escape it and have no sense of when it will end, Lowe said.

“I think uncertainty inherently brings with it a lot of anxiety,” Lowe said. The instability and accompanying social isolation can contribute to generalized anxiety and depression, she added.

Specific groups of students are vulnerable to additional challenges at this time, said Clinical Fellow in the Child Study Center Eunice Yuen. Yuen, the Emotional Wellness Consultant for the Asian American Cultural Center, said that Asian and Asian-American students have reported facing xenophobia that negatively impacted their mental health. At Yale and its surrounding city, students reported facing microaggressions and verbal attacks about the virus’s origin in China, Yuen said.

Additionally, Miles Waits ’21 said every piece of news he heard this summer was negative, either about the virus or about other social issues.

“Especially for African American students … all the protests, the social upheaval about all these tragic killings just put us all in a very negative mental space,” Waits said.

During the pandemic, Yale has switched to virtual counseling, as the traditional psychiatrist’s couch model does not allow for social distancing. The department therefore saw an uptick in the number of patients receiving treatment over the summer, as students could continue meeting online with their therapists, Hoffman explained.

In normal times, many states prohibit counseling across state lines. But at the pandemic’s start, 43 states, including Connecticut, relaxed these guidelines as part of their state-of-emergency orders, creating a “patchwork of regulations dictating who we could treat,” Hoffman told the News.

One student, Zach Stanik ’21, spent his summer in New York, where he was able to Zoom his counselor from Yale. But had he been at home in Ohio, he would not have had that option, Stanik told the News.

Students covered by Yale Heath but were at home in one of the seven remaining states were referred to a mental health resource in their home state. The cost of this treatment was covered by Yale, Hoffman added.

“We maintained contact with almost all of our students who were sent home and if we were not able to continue seeing them, we tried to work out appropriate treatment plans in their home state,” Hoffman wrote in an email to the News. “Our appointment volume increased after students were sent home in March which is a good indicator of how many patients we continued to treat.”

Still, there is some debate as to whether virtual therapy offers the same benefits as in-person counseling.

For his part, Gigante said virtual sessions have been commensurate with his in-person meetings.

But Rebecca Rubright ’22, who has kept up conversations with her Yale counselor during the pandemic, said that the video meetings have proved less helpful than in-person ones.

“It’s harder to connect with someone over the phone or over Zoom, and a lot of what counseling is is connecting with someone who can help you work through what you’re trying to work through,” Rubright said.

The August report by SUN also criticized the YMHC for its long wait times to get an appointment. In the 2018 report by the YCC, 54 percent of surveyed students disagreed or strongly disagreed that the amount of time they waited for an appointment was reasonable relative to the urgency of their condition.

Twenty-seven percent of students surveyed by the YCC waited more than seven days for an intake appointment after contacting YMHC, while 35 percent of students surveyed waited more than two weeks. After the intake appointment, 33 percent of students surveyed waited more than two weeks to be matched with a therapist, and then about a quarter of respondents waited an additional one to two weeks for their first meeting. Seventeen percent of students who attended an intake appointment were never assigned a therapist.

According to the SUN report, there is a ratio of about 353 enrolled students per every Yale counselor. Hoffman said this ratio is comparable to other institutions, but that Yale students seek out mental health treatment at higher rates than students at their peer institutions.

In an email to the News, Hoffman wrote that the department has made significant progress on reducing wait times. Last year, YMHC decreased the wait time to be assigned to a therapist by half, and further cut the wait this year, he added.

Still, SUN’s report recognizes how the COVID-19 pandemic creates additional psychological issues, particularly for low-income people of color. The report calls on the University to reduce mental health appointment wait times to fewer than two weeks and to hire more therapists of color and LGBTQ+ therapists.

“I think people wait until they absolutely need it or absolutely can’t continue the way that they’re continuing to reach out for help. People don’t ask for help until they really have reached the end of their rope,” Rubright said. “Then to be told, ‘we can’t see you for a month or two months’ can be pretty disheartening. Why does it take like four weeks to get an appointment at a center that’s supposedly for student health?”

The University reports that about half of all students will use Yale’s mental health services at some point. The number of students seeking counseling has increased significantly over the past five years, Hoffman told the News.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu