Opinion | Consider joining a Counseling Center therapy group

By Loretta Donoghue, Senior Staff Columnist

For the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered students’ routines across the world. There have been social, economic and humanitarian impacts, and now, as universities announce reopening plans for the fall semester, college students are once again feeling the pandemic’s effects.

Pitt joined this growing list of schools in June with an altered academic calendar for the fall term. In an email sent to incoming first-year students, with a later explanation to returning students and staff, the University said the fall semester will start earlier, utilize a combination of in-person and online learning and include measures to ensure social distancing. Pitt students can take a sigh of relief now that we have a general plan for the semester, but even with further clarifying announcements, the return to campus this fall will be far from stress-free.

The transition to college is already overwhelming, and the added stress of a pandemic will only make it harder. Even without a pandemic, the newfound freedom of college comes with worries about finances, grades, social life and independence. According to a 2018 report by the American College Health Association, more than 60% of college students said they had felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year, with more than 40% feeling so depressed they had difficulty functioning. With COVID-19, these numbers have only worsened 91% of college students in an Active Minds survey indicated that the virus has caused them extra stress or anxiety. College in the time of coronavirus is bound to be mentally draining for thousands of students. Thankfully, Pitt’s Counseling Center can help — incoming first-year students who find themselves struggling should consider joining a group counseling session.

The Counseling Center, part of the Student Health Service, offers several different therapy groups each semester. The groups are designed to work with six to 10 students, with two Counseling Center clinicians facilitating discussions. Groups meet once a week, with each session lasting approximately an hour and a half. Any student enrolled at the University who has also registered for classes and paid the Wellness Fee can enroll in a group for free.

For many students, therapy seems intimidating and overwhelming. The idea of talking at every therapy session can be exhausting, especially for individuals with depression or anxiety. The benefit of a group therapy session is that students are not required to share at every session — members are able to simply listen if they are ever uncomfortable talking. Students must complete a one-on-one screening appointment with a group facilitator before attending the group, but after that, the only requirement is to attend the group. In fact, in order to attend certain group sessions at the Counseling Center, such as “Understanding Self and Others,” participants cannot simultaneously see an individual therapist at the Center. For students who are anxious about one-on-one therapy or are new to therapy services, group therapy can serve as an introduction to therapy while still providing useful and vital help.

In order to best serve the needs of students, the Counseling Center offers three different group types — skills, support and process.

Skills-based groups are designed to help students learn specific coping skills for a variety of challenges, according to the Center. They provide a space for students to open up about personal experiences to which other group members can closely relate. There are also support groups, which are designed to help students who are going through similar experiences deal with some of the challenges that may arise. The third type of group, a process group, focuses on fostering an environment where students can openly communicate. All three types of groups are offered each semester, with each type centering on the main goals of receiving support, learning new skills and exploring personal interactions — all of which take place with the support and guidance of Counseling Center clinicians.

One of the biggest advantages of group therapy, as opposed to individual therapy or trying to work through problems without help, is that students in group therapy are reassured that they are not alone. A lot of the aforementioned mental struggles college students experience — especially first-year students — start with feelings of isolation. In a 2017 American College and Health Association survey, more than 60% of college students reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year. Group therapy can help with loneliness by allowing students to interact with peers who experience similar emotions — it reminds participants that other people experience difficult times, too. As put by the Counseling Center, group therapy “helps individuals see they are not alone in their concerns.”

Going beyond showing participants they are not alone, the Counseling Center has created group sessions for students with a sense of shared purpose. This summer, for example, the Center is holding the “Racial Stress and Trauma” group, specifically for Black students. The group focuses on hardships Black students face, while providing a space for Black students “to understand and process their experiences of racism as a trauma, identify how it impacts them, find ways of strengthening their resilience and regain a sense of agency.” There are groups that focus on certain shared struggles, such as the transition to college and substance abuse, and there are groups for specific segments of the student population, like LGBTQ+ students and graduate students.

Group therapy with peers who have shared experiences goes beyond showing participants they are not alone — it also provides students with new ways to handle stressful situations. Even though groups are centered on a shared identity, each participant will have a different personality, unique background and individual solutions to situations. In individual therapy, a therapist will, of course, give proposed solutions to a student’s problems, but in a group atmosphere, the student is able to receive the therapist’s input in addition to seeing how their peers, who actually possess the shared identity, handle their emotions.

On this issue of shared identity, the Counseling Center states, “Group clinicians create a safe interpersonal environment that allows group members to offer support, provide alternative coping strategies and develop accountability in working toward goals.”

With the group facilitators leading discussions, students can open up about a shared struggle and see how the other students deal with the issue. They can pick up new strategies for their problems, as well as encourage each other to work through their own obstacles.

College is full of new independence and exciting memories, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and stress. Especially during a global pandemic, many incoming first-year students may become overwhelmed with the college atmosphere. The Counseling Center is a resource available to all students in need of help, and any first-year student who finds themselves struggling should consider joining a therapy group.

Loretta primarily writes about politics. Write to her at [email protected].