In compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines, the Binghamton University Counseling Center (UCC) has begun conducting its services in a telemental health format.

A majority of the UCC’s services are conducted through Zoom or by phone, with a few exceptions when it is clinically necessary. According to the UCC’s webpage, available telemental health services include “individual counseling, group counseling, workshops, consultation for concerned parents, guardians, friends and family, a secure room if needed for urgent telemental health appointments, referrals to providers and treatment coordination, mindfulness practices for stress management and same-day urgent counseling.”

Mark Rice, clinical director at the UCC, said there were various technical challenges the UCC has faced during this transition.

“There were many initial organizational challenges, such as how to deliver services virtually, get key documents signed and rethink how we could do group counseling in a virtual space,” Rice wrote in an email. “We have a great team and were able to troubleshoot these challenges. We also made some changes to streamline paperwork and make access quicker and easier, since so many other things had become more complicated for our students.”

Rice also discussed the challenges that come from losing in-person interaction, which can be critical to effective counseling.

“Counseling is a personal process and relies on building a therapeutic relationship,” Rice wrote. “Although most students have been pleased with it, there are occasions when the counselor or client can miss the direct presence of a face-to-face meeting or miss some nuances, such as with nonverbal communication. At the same time, we have found counselors and students to be adaptable in creating relationships through Zoom and modifying their communications. An adaptation can be something as simple as finding ways to see hand gestures by adjusting a camera or moving one’s hands a bit higher.”

According to Rice, the UCC has managed to maintain most of its services, with the switch from counseling in person to counseling over Zoom as the only major difference. He also noted that the move to virtual services has allowed for the UCC to refer students to services across the state rather than limiting them to the Binghamton area.

Emily Panigrosso, assistant director of the UCC, noted the safety benefits of telemental health counseling.

“During the pandemic, this type of service delivery has helped to ease concerns about safety regarding contact with others,” Panigrosso wrote in an email. “It has provided additional benefits which include convenience related to travel for appointments, such as avoiding transportation difficulties or concerns about tight schedules. We have also been able to meet with students who are taking coursework remotely, as long as they are in New York state at the time of the meeting. Additionally, there is reduced perceived stigma for those students who may be uncomfortable coming to an office setting for appointments.”

Some students have faced difficulties utilizing UCC’s services due to the limitation that only students residing in New York state are eligible to receive UCC’s services. An anonymous student from out of state spoke about her issues continuing with counseling after the shift to remote counseling in the spring.

“I was unable to do therapy with [UCC] once I left for home last March, as I live out of state and my therapist was only licensed in New York, and then decided to stop attending once I got back due to the weird experience I had,” the anonymous student said. “I’m very lucky that my current therapist is licensed in both states, but sometimes [I] have trouble finding secure meeting places to talk to her. In the beginning of the semester, I had a hard time understanding how to book rooms at all, and even now it’s challenging to find a place as almost everything closes at five.”

Amalia Sulk, a sophomore majoring in environmental science, said that while she considers mental health resources to be important, she believes that BU should focus on reducing student stress.

“I think mental health resources like the [UCC] are important, but I think the focus should be on reducing student stress as well as providing them with tools to cope with it,” Sulk said. “While I fully understand the decision to not give us breaks, I think it has made everything more stressful, along with dealing with news about a pandemic and presidential election.”