As Elgin Community College shifted online last March, students had to adjust to the new regulations virtual format but so did school services and the people who provide them.
Premlata Nikoniuk is one of four wellness professionals at ECC who helps students take care of their mental health by providing therapy and leading support groups. Nikoniuk, like students, had to quickly adjust to a new reality.
“Wellness Services had to make a lot of changes really quickly,” Nikoniuk said.
Last March, students, faculty, and staff were informed that classes for the remainder of the spring semester were going to be virtual. That implied that student services had to complete the transition as well.
“We needed to keep providing services,” Nikoniuk said. “The question became what were we going to do?”
However, providing therapy in a virtual environment is more complicated than jumping on a Zoom call. Due to federal regulation therapy needs to be kept confidential between provider and client.
“People asked us why we couldn’t use Zoom,” Nikoniuk said. “On Zoom, anyone can join a meeting and there is no guarantee that therapy can be kept confidential.”
In the weeks following the virtual shift, the ECC wellness department began providing therapy via phones provided by the school and on a platform called Doxy which meets the confidentiality requirements for therapy.
The speedy response was necessary because, unlike other student services that saw a decrease in usage during the pandemic, mental health help was needed by students more than ever.
“We had the same number of individual sessions for both last spring and last fall and then some,” Nikoniuk said. “For our depression support group, the numbers went through the roof. We had to add another weekly session.”
ECC students faced several COVID-19 related mental health difficulties. At first, before it was clear that students would not return to campus, it was the uncertainty of the pandemic that plagued students.
“Students even asked me what was going to happen,” Nikoniuk said. “The heightened fear of not knowing what was going on led to a lot of anxiety.”
Nikoniuk attributes this anxiety to the increase in stress that students faced during the pandemic. Students were stressed by the idea of being exposed to COVID-19, but also by more nuanced situations caused by the shift to virtual classes.
The pandemic leads to disruptions in sleep patterns for students, disruptions in eating patterns, and difficulty concentrating on work due to the blurring of school and work boundaries.
As vaccination efforts continue, and students envision a return to a pre-pandemic word, the anxiety experienced by students is not likely to dissipate. Now, it is this vision of a pre-pandemic in the near future that that leads to anxiety.
“Students feel hopeless because they know what their present looks like but not what their future looks like,” Nikoniuk said. “There’s a lot of fear and remuneration about the future.”
If you or a fellow student, wants to schedule an appointment with a wellness professional this can be done via the Access ECC Portal or by calling 847-214-7390 or by emailing [email protected]