One of my friends is having a hard time finding mental health help.
She has panic attacks and really severe depression. She was really triggered by the recent death, and went to counseling services in search of immediate counseling and medication to control her panic attacks. She asked Furman for immediate counseling and medication, and the best they could do was give her an intake appointment next Thursday, with a vague reassurance that she would get her help soon.
Is there anywhere on campus or affiliated services that she can receive immediate mental health counseling and medication? I want to be able to point her to somewhere she can get help from more immediately instead of having to wait ALMOST A WHOLE WEEK to even have an intake appointment.
A very concerned friend.
Hello Concerned Friend. My name is Britt Fossum. I’m going to start of by listing some of the resources available at Columbia:
- CPS Drop-In Hours & Locations
- CPS After-Hours: (212) 854-9797
- Columbia/Barnard Nightline: (212) 854-7777
- Check other universities with graduate programs in psychology or social work. They often have an affiliated clinic or know of local clinics that can see people at a low cost.
- Go to a therapist-in-training at a local training institute in psychology and social work. These are typically offered at a low cost, and the student counselors are supervised, so you will be in good hands. You can use the search services at the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers to find a counselor.
- Free and low-cost health clinics in NYC if you’re still looking for other options. However, these often have very long wait lists, so beware.
The upsetting truth about counseling at Columbia is that there are not enough providers to meet the needs of students. No one will ever be turned away in the case of an emergency, but access to non-emergency counseling and treatment is on a first-come, first-service basis that leaves many people stranded with no tools to deal with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.
Anxiety in particular is demoralizing and terrifying and manifests with both acute and chronic symptoms. It might lurk for weeks at fairly low levels, or spike up into a full blown panic attack seemingly without warning. At low levels, it makes life harder. Daily assignments become more intimidating; events and outings become exhausting. Chronic anxiety can be dealt with using a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. It’s impossible to completely control anxiety after one visit to a psychiatrist, or even after ten. There are quicker fixes to manage the acute symptoms that take less time to implement.
The most acute symptom of anxiety is a panic attack. From personal experience, a panic attack is completely debilitating. Most of the time, I am hit out of nowhere with a single negative thought that I latch onto. Maybe I start thinking that I am not breathing enough oxygen, or that I forgot to answer a question on an exam I just turned in. I start to cycle rapidly through all of the things that have been stressing me out. As my thoughts get more and more out of control, I start to lose focus. My heart rate increases, I start feeling nauseous, and I struggle to breathe.
Then comes the hard part: recovering. My treatment has mostly involved a kind of counseling called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The central axiom of CBT is intervention at two levels: thought and behavior. You work on minimizing negative thought patterns and dealing with the physical symptoms of anxiety. When I have an out-of-nowhere attack, I focus on dealing with the physical symptoms first because my thoughts are already out of control. Here are the things I do:
- If time isn’t an issue, distract yourself. Talk to people, talk to yourself, stop doing whatever it was that you were doing when you started panicking, and get out of the environment. I like to go through the elements of the periodic table and crack my knuckles.
- Slow down your breathing. Count to ten on an inhale and ten on an exhale–breath counting will also help to distract you.
- I get super nauseous when I have a panic attack but never throw up. I drink peppermint tea if I can get some. Something about the smell is incredibly calming and makes me feel less sick.
- If time is an issue (panic attacks come at the worst times, as I learned when I found myself panicking 15 minutes before my inorganic midterm), sit or lie down and focus entirely on calming yourself down.
- Public panic attacks can feel embarrassing on top of terrifying, and that only makes them even worse to deal with. Just remember that you want to be functional quickly, so try to focus only on yourself.
- Finally, I take the rest of the day slowly. I cut off caffeine intake, postpone any assignments I have to do, and try to keep myself in a calm state. You’re more likely to have a panic attack if you’re already in a state of heightened anxiety.
Sometimes I am lucky enough to notice that my thoughts are building up to a panic attack and I have a chance to head it off early. In this case, I pretty much go through the same steps as above, but because I am still thinking and not panicking, I try to redirect my thoughts. If distraction is the mental equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and yelling, redirection is like logically talking through the reasons why my negative thoughts are not actually as true as I think they are. I still haven’t quite mastered this strategy, and so often resort to distraction anyways, but on the rare occasions when I’ve managed to counter anxiety with logic I am much less likely to be anxious for the rest of the day.
As a note for any readers, these are all just stop-gap measures, and I am certainly no expert on panic attacks or anxiety. If you find yourself having panic attacks, try to get treatment for them whether it is behavioral-focused or medication or a combination of both. I share my personal experience now, though, out of a desire to help people who are frustrated by an inability to schedule CPS appointments.
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