Mental Health: A Work In A Progress At Dalton State

Many issues rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, not the least of which was the prevalence of mental health concerns and the need for support for all of us. How many of us can honestly say we had no personal emotional struggles related to the COVID pandemic?

The need for mental health services existed prior to the COVID pandemic; however, we saw an increased need among our students during and since the onset of COVID. Some students lost multiple family members to COVID. Some students had legitimate concerns about bringing COVID home to their families. Some students were negatively impacted by the isolation and lack of human contact as they attempted to learn in a virtual environment. These are unique issues we have seen since March of 2020.

Many college students experience obstacles in addition to those that arose during the COVID pandemic that would likely derail any of us. Our students are academically capable of success, and yet they don’t all succeed. Personal issues are one of the many hardships that can sideline our students. At Dalton State, we are fortunate to have a small but highly competent personal counseling staff who provide services to our students at no additional cost. With the help of a trained professional, some of these students work through their challenges and remain on track academically.

Personal counseling is just one of the many services we have provided to our students for several years in addition to (physical) health services, academic advising assistance, tutoring services, etc. In some cases, a student needs more support than our counselors and other services can provide. In those cases, our staff connect students with the community resources available to help them find the support they need. Our goal is always to help our students be successful in obtaining their desired academic credential.

Although our students are our primary service concern, Dalton State cannot function without qualified employees working at their optimum capacity. Our employees have always been given access to high quality benefits that include a variety of healthcare options as well as life insurance, retirement plans, etc. Our employees also have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides support for mental health such as free and confidential assessments and short-term counseling.

A few years prior to March of 2020, the University System of Georgia began offering a more extensive Wellbeing program for its employees, including Dalton State employees. These services and activities provide faculty and staff with a more exhaustive variety of resources ranging from financial counseling to physical and emotional health issues. Participation in these activities is incentivized with a one-time annual stipend that corresponds to the employee’s level of engagement in wellbeing activities. Such activities include obtaining an annual flu shot or participation in a smoking cessation or weight loss program.

Like our students, however, we have seen an increase in requests for personal counseling among our employees since the onset of COVID. Employees experienced challenges akin to those our students faced but even more of our employees also struggled with working from home while managing young children who could not attend their schools or daycare centers, reduced household income and challenges with returning to work while their children were frequently sent home due to exposure to COVID. Some of our students faced similar hardships, but these situations were more prevalent among our employees. 

In response to the unique challenges employees have faced since March 2020, mental health issues became a greater emphasis of the Wellbeing initiative. Newer activities include, for example, chair yoga at lunchtime, mindfulness exercises, journaling and meditation. We also offer training for our employees to better recognize symptoms of distress in others and how to talk to them about these concerns.

I believe we are all works in progress and mental health should not be a taboo topic.  Some of us need ongoing assistance to remain productive and able to engage in healthy relationships. Others need periodic support due to a specific incident. COVID triggered a need for many of our students and employees, but mental health has been and always will be a topic of concern for Dalton State’s students and employees.  

Just as we must work daily on eating and exercise habits, we must also be attentive daily to our mental health. Ensuring we provide ongoing support for mental health issues to our students and employees means Dalton State will always be a work in progress.