Boynton sees a 25% dip in new mental health patients during pandemic

Some say the difficulty of connecting with a counselor online may be contributing to the decrease.

Boynton+Health%2C+the+COVID-19+testing+site+for+the+University+of+Minnesota+campus%2C+sits+empty+on+Sunday%2C+Oct.+25.+

Audrey Rauth

Boynton Health, the COVID-19 testing site for the University of Minnesota campus, sits empty on Sunday, Oct. 25.

Izzy Teitelbaum, Campus Administration Reporter

Boynton Health is reporting a 25% decrease in the number of new students registering for Boynton’s mental health services in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019.

Some, including Boynton’s Interim Director Dr. Matt Hanson, have said the difficulty of connecting with a mental health professional online for the first time or not having access to a private space for telehealth appointments may deter students. This is despite the fact, however, that overall enrollment this fall remained similar to the previous year’s.

Despite a decrease in new intakes, Boynton saw a 15% increase of return visits since fall 2019, Hanson said.

Sarah Thorstenson, a fourth-year student at the University, has been seeing a nurse practitioner at Boynton for over two years who she continues to meet with virtually. After working with a crisis counselor in December whom she had never met before, Thorstenson said she understood that it might be hard for someone new to connect with a professional online.

“I feel like it just kind of takes time to build a rapport with whoever you’re seeing,” she said.

In response to the pandemic, Boynton introduced new ways to continue offering mental health care to students from a distance such as lifting session limits and utilizing telehealth appointments, according to Hanson. After the original hurdle of getting out-of-state students access to mental health services, Boynton was able to reconnect with those students virtually.

Thorstenson said she prefers her appointments online. Having to find and pay for parking was an inconvenience for her, she said. Telehealth grants her more flexibility and allows her to remain in the comfort of her home.

In contrast, Student Counseling Services (SCS), which provides career and personal counseling, saw a small increase in new student treatment in the fall.

“It’s not like [students] finish their finals, and they don’t set foot on campus anymore,” said SCS Director Vesna Hampel-Kozar. “There’s these different connections to the University and to life around campus — services on campus — that are impacting us.”

Addie Marzinske, a fourth-year student, said she was not inclined to seek further help from the University after scheduling conflicts with SCS. When Marzinske eventually met with a SCS counselor, she felt the appointment was rushed and that they were pushing for an easy fix instead of discussing the root of her problems.

“Scheduling, as well as they didn’t make me feel very welcome,” she said. “It was kind of more like it seemed like an obligation to them.”

Marzinske added that the negative experience deterred her from seeking any mental health services offered by the University.

A COVID-19 stress management survey conducted by the University last spring showed that depression among students increased during the pandemic, according to psychology professor Dr. Patricia Frazier, who worked on the survey. Forty-two percent of students surveyed had moderate to severe depression. This is a 14% increase compared to the study’s 2017 data.

Survey participants reported that their top five concerns included maintaining grades, seeing friends in person, online classes, police brutality and general uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.

Frazier said she believes that while these stressors are difficult to deal with, they are not the kind of things that would push someone to seek a counselor. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends utilizing services like counseling and therapy for pandemic-related stress.

Some of the CDC’s suggestions that students can practice outside of professional assistance are taking media breaks, taking care of their bodies and connecting with others.

“There are things that you can do on your own [to manage stress],” Frazier said. “Which are basically these kinds of self-care activities that are recommended by the CDC.”

Correction: A previous version of this article linked the incorrect survey referenced by Dr. Patricia Frazier. Further, the article also incorrectly described some services provided by Boynton Health and Student Counseling Services.