By Kenya Godette

ODU News sat down with Joy Himmel, director of Counseling Services, to talk about the impact and importance of counseling services in a university setting. Beyond support for students, support for faculty and staff has become equally significant in the discussion about mental health.

Himmel, the sixth female board chair and  only licensed  behavioral health provider to be appointed to the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care (AAAHC) Board of Directors, offered insight into what it means to break barriers, hold space for mental wellness in academia and drive retention through counseling programs.

Joy will lead the AAAHC as chair-elect in 2024 and will serve as chair in 2025. The association is the leading ambulatory healthcare accreditation body for more than 6,600 organizations, including ODU, and advocates for quality health care through the development and adoption of nationally recognized standards.

ODU News: Can you talk about what your election to the AAAHC board means to you and how it informs your work here at ODU?

Himmel: It’s an honor. And it's really a testament to AAAHC’s commitment to diversity. Like many organizations, if you looked at the leadership of the board, it was very male-dominated and was also physician-dominated. So, as you can imagine, I felt very fortunate to be considered for the chair position. I see this as kind of amazing, personally for myself, but also amazing for behavioral health. For so long, in organizations nationally, mental health took a backseat and it really can't take a backseat anymore. The fact that I was elected is a testament to the fact that mental health is becoming a priority issue. Since being with the AAAHC since 2009, it's been fantastic to learn how other organizations operate by looking at their policies, compliance standards, procedures and practices, and by talking to their staff. I get to bring that back to ODU.

ODU News: There’s been evidence that around the spring semester there’s an increase in demand for student counseling services. Now that we are in the spring, can you talk more about that?

Himmel: Yeah, we see that at ODU and nationally. Typically, in March and April, college counseling centers see an uptick in severe depression. We also see an uptick in suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, with that uptick in suicidal ideation, there are more students who attempt it or think about it and end up in the hospital. I don't know that there's good empirical data as to the reason for that, but we do know around this time there’s a change in season. When we get through April, we kind of take a nice deep breath because it's pretty intense through those months.

ODU News: Do you think it has anything to do with finals coming up?

Himmel: It certainly may. We have many students who struggle through the year and they don't get the help they need. It comes to the point where they're getting towards the end of a semester and they really can't hide from it anymore. Many of our students are not only challenged academically, but even in their family situations. Many of them don't have the support that they need. We've also seen changes since the pandemic in terms of the resiliency of students. Resiliency is that ability to bounce back in the face of adversity and some students struggle with not having the coping skills to deal with general life stressors - not to mention academic stressors.

ODU News: Could you talk a little more about the effect the pandemic had on students?

Himmel: The students that we're getting now, since the pandemic, have had varied experiences. Some had a really good experience and others not so much. But for everybody, it separated them from social, face-to-face interactions with their peers. This age group is very social and they need those connections. Some students tried to compensate through social media, but the problem is while it creates some connection, it's almost a false connection. It also makes things feel unreal because people typically only post the good, happy things. And then what happens? Students compare their life to that life and feel like they aren’t good enough. For students who already had problems with self-image, self-concept, anxiety or depression, those things got worse. We've seen an increase in social anxiety, where students are more nervous and unwilling to engage in social activities. I have a lot of students who never leave their residence halls. Many of their courses are online and they can easily isolate. That isolation itself is a real risk factor.

ODU News: I know some students are very self-aware, but some students are figuring it out as they go. What’s your advice for knowing when to seek counseling support?

Himmel: We try to get that message out everywhere we can. We often present for classrooms or residence life and the message is always clear — help is available. Students don't have to wait until things get really bad to seek care. We’ve intentionally moved to a new model of care that provides same-day and next-day appointments and includes self-scheduling, making it easy for students to engage with us. We have virtual and in-person visits and we devise customized plans for every student to ensure they’re meeting their personal and academic goals.

ODU News: How can faculty help?

Himmel: Faculty are the counseling center’s eyes and ears because they have forward-facing interaction with students every day and they notice things. In March 2023, we launched the AT-RISK, suicide prevention program on campus and more than 700 faculty and staff completed that training. It taught faculty and staff how to identify at-risk students, how to intervene and how to refer them to campus resources. We trained them to look for signs like despondency, suddenly missing classes, turning assignments in late, looking disheveled, having a sad expression and not engaging with others. It’s important that faculty feel like they have the resources to get students the help they need.

ODU News: Speaking of faculty, are there any counseling support services at ODU for them?

Himmel: Absolutely. About a year ago, we established the Well-being Collective, whose membership is composed of faculty, staff and students. We used the American College Health Association’s Healthy Campus Environmental Scan and through that, we identified a number of priority areas, including faculty and staff mental health and wellness. Our goal is to collaborate with human resources and other departments to let faculty know about resources like our no-cost employee assistance program that has free mental health services.

ODU News: So now comes the fun part. What’s the best thing about working in counseling services at ODU?

Himmel: Oh, my! One of the most rewarding things is that when I came to ODU in July of 2022, there were five counselors here. There was a need for new ideas and I was fortunate to join at the right time. I got with counseling staff and we really looked at research related to how we could create a model of care that provided timely services to students and increased access to care. We're seeing so many more students than before. This year, we had over 1,000 additional appointments and we saw close to 300 more students. We’re definitely on the right track. I now have 10 full-time therapists, a psychiatrist and two part-time therapists.

But to really illustrate success, you have to look at our outcomes. We do satisfaction surveys with students who utilize our services and the data from last academic year is that 92% reported that counseling services helped them stay in school, so now we're talking about retention. Eighty-six percent reported that services helped them to improve or maintain their academic performance and 86% reported that counseling helped them learn how to cope with stress. So, when you look at the outcomes, it's satisfying. We’re not just helping students figure out how to cope with life, we're helping them stay in school.