Q&A: Julie Ross, CMHS director, says self-care is more important now than ever

Julie Ross, the director of CMHS, is pictured. Courtesy Julie Ross

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Julie Ross is the director of Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) at Tufts. In addition to her role as director and her duties as a staff psychologist, Ross serves as a liaison to Tufts University Police Department and to the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs and as a mental health consultant to campus committees. Her specific areas of expertise and clinical interests include life transitions and loss and grief, which may prove particularly relevant this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Daily interviewed Ross to hear about CMHS at Tufts, the differences this year will bring and her advice to the Class of 2024. 

The Tufts Daily (TD): Can you briefly introduce CMHS at Tufts? What are some of the services and resources you offer to students? 

Julie Ross (JR): We are a diverse group of clinicians who specialize in working with college students. We have a variety of educational and training backgrounds, areas of expertise, and identities. Our approach is trauma-informed and individualized. We believe that every person has a right to care and to being treated with respect and dignity … We offer a variety of services including individual and group counseling, psychiatric services as a specialized adjunct treatment when indicated, assistance with referrals to community mental health services, and consultation to folx who are concerned about a student. Counseling services are free and confidential. We also offer “Ask a Counselor” sessions, which are brief (15 minutes or less) conversations with a counselor that are confidential, but are not therapy. These sessions are helpful for students who may have a very specific concern, such as being worried about a friend, as well as for students who are unsure about counseling and want to know what it’s like to speak with a counselor. There is a counselor on call for mental health emergencies 24/7. Around campus, we work with mental health related student organizations such as Active Minds on Campus and Ears for Peers, and offer trainings for student leaders, faculty, and staff on how to recognize and help a student who may be struggling with their mental health.

TD: What is your individual role in CMHS, and what does that entail? What does your day-to-day look like?

JR: As Director of CMHS, my role includes working to ensure that things go smoothly for students and for our staff on a day-to-day basis, as well as keeping us aligned with our mission and guiding the overall direction of the service. I value working collaboratively with the counseling team when we are considering how best to deploy our resources and serve our students, so that everyone’s perspective is shared and considered when making decisions that will impact our work. 

I have to laugh a bit at trying to describe my day-to-day, as every day is unique! This is just one of the many things I love about my work at Tufts, in addition to the honor of working with our amazing students and my incredible colleagues. On any given day though, I am likely to be in at least a couple of meetings with colleagues at CMHS and/or others in Student Affairs, consulting with someone who is concerned about a student, seeing a student in counseling, dealing with or consulting about a student emergency, revising a policy or working to improve a process to make it more user-friendly, serving on a committee with colleagues from around campus, and of course dealing with an avalanche of emails!

TD: Do you feel that this year will be different from years past (for example, in terms of demand for CMHS resources, new challenges, etc)?

JR: Oh absolutely! It has already been a very different Spring and Summer. In terms of demand, we do expect to see an increase, given the uncertainties and stressors we are all facing right now. The pandemic, of course. And the pandemic occurs in the context of the increased visibility of deadly violence against BIPOC communities, structural racism resulting in devastating disparities in health outcomes as well as in innumerable other areas, a nation that is divided and facing what will be a hotly contested presidential election, environmental catastrophes across the planet, and more. As a result, we know that students are dealing with more anxiety, loss, trauma, and loneliness and we have been working hard to meet these challenges and find ways to get the word out to students that we are here and we want to help. For example, we fielded a Needs Assessment this summer to get a better sense of how students are managing and what kind of help they need. We also started an Instagram account and have been posting regularly throughout the summer. We offered virtual groups and workshops throughout the spring and summer, and have expanded these programs in efforts to include more students and to bring them together to talk with each other about what is important to them.

TD: Have there been any changes or shifts in the way CMHS will operate this year as a result of COVID-19?

JR: When on-campus operations were shut down in March, we shifted from in-person to virtual services. We have been providing all of our services virtually since that time, and will continue to do so this fall semester. For students who are working with our counseling staff, there will be Zoom Rooms on the first floor of our building that can be scheduled for 40-minute appointments. This is a bit shorter than what some students are used to, but is necessary because of the public health requirements for airing out between sessions that keep the rooms safe. Students can just call the front desk to schedule a room if they don’t have another private place for their counseling session. In addition to those rooms, there will be other spaces on campus that students can reserve for privacy during telehealth meetings … We are concerned about what medical isolation will be like for students, and we will be among those on campus who reach out to those students in a variety of ways. For example, we plan to hold drop-in support/hangout groups for those students, and we will be making sure they have information about our resources as well as a number of other resources they can access even while in isolation.

TD: Can you speak more specifically about some of your “areas of expertise,” namely mental health issues impacting first-generation college students and life transitions?

JR: As a former first-generation student, I appreciate the special challenges that can arise when there is no one in your family who can advise, guide, or support you as you try to make decisions about college, work through the application process, and begin life as a college student with all the attendant emotional, financial, social, and academic impact. For example, there can be a sense of loneliness and dislocation, feeling perhaps you neither quite fit with your peers from high school, your family/community, nor with your more privileged classmates. This is just one of the many challenges which are more complex also when you are dealing with racial, cultural, and linguistic differences. Becoming a college student is just one type of life transition, but life transitions are always multifaceted experiences, involving both losses and gains. I find these to be pivotal moments in our development as human beings, and they offer opportunities to both reflect on where we have been, and to explore and be intentional about where and how we might move forward.

TD: The Class of 2024 is making the transition to college, which is already often difficult, during an unprecedentedly difficult time. What advice would you offer them?

JR: Self-compassion and self-care are more important now than ever. This is a time to be kind and gentle with yourself, and not to expect yourself to be able to function as you would in less difficult times. Know that feeling stressed and upset about what is happening in our world is natural, and there are many ways to help manage these feelings. Some may be solitary, such as journaling, or jogging, reading or doing crossword puzzles. And even though we are socially distancing, it is important to engage with others, whether talking about serious things or joking around, taking a virtual museum tour together or watching a movie on Netflix Party. Make time for the things that bring you joy in the moment such as music, dance, running, making art, or whatever works for you. Finally, foster hope and know that this difficult time will not last forever. 

Students can visit the CMHS website to learn more about services or make an appointment.