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NewsMar 28, 2022

Tackling mental health challenges on and off campus

Riverside Community Care CEO Marsha Medalie expresses cautious optimism about trends in behavioral health services

Watch Marsha Medalie's presentation as part of the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley.

The state of mental health services in this country, including on university campuses, has been dire for years and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated systemic inequities and other shortcomings.

But there’s reason for hope, insisted Riverside Community Care CEO Marsha Medalie on Thursday night’s installment of our Thought Leadership Series.

“Access to behavioral health services has been a simmering crisis,” said Medalie, a longtime clinician and community mental health agency administrator who, during a virtual forum, presented a slideshow replete with sobering statistics:

  • During the pandemic, 56 percent of young adults reported signs of anxiety and/or depression.
  • 25 percent began or increased drug and alcohol use.
  • 26 percent had serious thoughts of suicide.

In addition, the pandemic has prompted a decrease in available hospital beds for non-COVID-related treatment and brought about a reduction in staff. And this is on top of longstanding stigmas about mental illness, inequities in the way insurance companies address mental health vs. physical health claims, and a lack of access for people of limited means and other members of marginalized communities.

“For many years, there was an assumption that if you had a mental health diagnosis … you were doomed to never be well,” Medalie said.

Nevertheless, things may be looking up, thanks to what Medalie called a “slight silver lining” to the pandemic. Private therapists and community outpatient care centers had to quickly master telehealth delivery models, which increased access to counseling for those with transportation challenges, mobility issues or those who feel too anxious to seek in-person therapy.

Zoom screenshot of Marsha Medalie and Susan Gere
Riverside Community Care CEO Marsha Medalie, left, takes questions during a virtual forum moderated by Dr. Susan Gere, professor of Counseling and Psychology.

The pandemic also increased the prevalence of therapeutic apps and online counseling platforms, though Medalie advises reading the fine print before embarking on one of the nationally advertised therapy portals.

And while the media is a frequent target of scorn, press coverage of COVID-related depression and celebrities’ sharing of their own struggles with anxiety and depression are chipping away at the stigmas surrounding mental illness.

“Many more people are talking openly about their mental health challenges,” Medalie said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we are starting to see a positive trend.”

Part of that trend, Medalie added, is the recently announced “innovative and progressive” partnership between Lesley and Riverside Community Care, which will increase students’ on-campus access to professional behavioral health counseling and, when necessary, psychiatric medicine. The collaboration will also provide internships to students in disciplines and counseling and psychology as well as expressive therapies.

This summer, Riverside will open an outpatient mental health center on Lesley’s campus, at a newly renovated 23 Mellen St. (Schwartz Hall), the Riverside Outpatient Center at Cambridge.

Lesley’s current Counseling Center will then have the capacity to expand its wellness programming, and focus on advancing the field.