Every person might at some point feel confused by their own feelings, fears, and struggles. In that case, it’s important to pay a timely visit to a psychologist. Sometimes a couple of consultations are enough to make sense of what’s happening in your relationships or studies. In other cases, apathy and a bad mood are the beginning of a depression that is to be dealt with by working with a specialist for a longer time.

Both students and staff members of ITMO University have an opportunity to consult a psychologist Evgenii Raskin shared how the system of psychological counselling functions at ITMO.

Evgenii Raskin

Evgenii Raskin

How does the psychological support system look like at ITMO?

Specialists at the Medical, Psychological and Social Assistance Center work in this field. There are two psychologists in our center and Elena Sharapanovskaya, the head of the center, also provides psychological help. The specialists work in the fields of psychology, pedagogy, and in some cases use methods of psychotherapy. 

There is also a psychologist consulting at the complex of dormitories where most out-of-town and international students live, and another specialist in the Center for Inclusive Education.

We have equipped rooms for psychological relief with a fibre optic shower, an ionizer, an aromatherapy device, a massage wrap, and a sand tray for sand therapy, as well as an area for consultations where people who seek help can talk to a psychologist. If they don’t want or aren’t able to meet in person, they can also do it online.

If there is a more serious problem that demands working with a psychotherapist, we have an agreement with a medical center that provides specialized help to our students at the expense of the university.

Sand tray therapy. Photo courtesy of E. Sharapanovskaya
Sand tray therapy. Photo courtesy of E. Sharapanovskaya

Can employees also receive psychological counselling?

Strictly speaking, our center is primarily helping students but of course, staff members can also use our services. If there is a way to provide help, we won’t say no. As part of the mental health month, we plan to launch a project jointly with Alter. It’s a service that helps choose a psychologist. We are currently discussing forms of collaboration: perhaps, there will be a discount for our students and employees or a free consultation. 

We plan to further improve our psychological services for the employees, students, and lecturers.

Why does the university take mental health problems seriously?

It’s very important, especially for students: there are a lot of new events happening in their lives, a new community, new friends, a more independent way of living, academic activities, and so on. About 70% of our students are from out of town. Moving, meeting new people, starting a new life – it’s a huge stress. 

The pandemic and self-isolation proved how important this service is. That’s when we hired the second psychologist.

The room for psychological relief. Sand tray therapy. Photo courtesy of E. Sharapanovskaya
The room for psychological relief. Sand tray therapy. Photo courtesy of E. Sharapanovskaya

Is privacy of your clients maintained?

Confidentiality and privacy of clients is a professional duty of all psychologists. That’s why we decided not to use ISU for making appointments. Students use VK or email instead. Some prefer to call or visit the center in person to do that. As part of the ITMO.Future project, students have developed an app specifically for making appointments with psychologists and it was independent from all other services on purpose so that it wouldn’t be possible to access verified accounts of students. We will announce its launch soon.

However, it’s important to note that we’re talking about confidentiality, not anonymity. Specialists don’t work with anonymous clients because they need to see the person and communicate with them in order to help.

What kind of problems do you help solve?

You can’t always easily understand what’s happening to a person – it might be a short hard period for them or the beginning of a serious psychological crisis that requires treatment. Elena Sharapanovskaya explained how to understand that you need to pay a visit to a psychologist.

Elena Sharapanovskaya
Elena Sharapanovskaya

With what problems can ITMO students turn to a psychologist?

A great psychologist Boris Bratus once said that a person can be mentally healthy, but sick personally. This means that even a healthy person can have certain problems, either short-termed or large-scale ones, and they might require a psychologist’s help. People with all kinds of problems turn to us: intrapersonal problems such as losing the purpose in life, fear, panic reactions, lack of motivation, problems in relationships, problems with parents, sexual problems, etc. It’s important to understand, however, that the reason why someone decided to visit a psychologist and the psychological problem itself are two different things.

We mostly work with problems related to making choices, finding a purpose, making big decisions, and figuring out the feelings. Some patients also have psychosomatic problems, when their psychological problems manifest themselves physically.

Students with stable academic problems often visit us when it’s too late. If you do your best at studying but still gain academic backlog, you might want to discuss it with a psychologist. Not when you only have 2-3 weeks before the last deadline for improving your grades, but much earlier. Many people these days tend to explain study problems with procrastination. But the real problem in such cases often lies not in laziness but in lack of understanding of yourself and your aspirations, the discrepancy between the chosen field of study and your abilities, and so on. 

In what cases should you see a specialist?

You should do it, when fear, anxiety, and psychological problems disrupt your life. When you can’t solve certain problems yourself, you can’t build close personal relationships, and for a long time, relationships among fellow students or colleagues don’t come together.

But you should remember that psychologists aren’t wizards who can wave their wands and make your wishes come true. Psychological consultations aren’t  just conversations, they require  internal work, primarily – your own.

A massage wrap. Photo courtesy of E. Sharapanovskaya
A massage wrap. Photo courtesy of E. Sharapanovskaya

And if you haven’t been sleeping for several days, have no appetite, your hands tremble, or you’ve been in a bad mood for two weeks for no apparent reason, your psychologist will probably recommend consulting a psychotherapist as well.

Is there anything you can do before making an appointment?

It’s hard to give universal recommendations. In general, you might try to unwind, read a book, listen to music, see a play, or take a trip to the countryside with friends – this might help switch your attention. If you have been working hard at the lab, try to take a day off. If you know any relaxation methods or can meditate, we recommend doing that, too.

If you can’t handle it yourself, you can try a motherwort-based supplement. But if this doesn’t help either, if your state continues to disrupt your life, if you feel like giving up, visit a specialist.

What approaches and methods of psychology and psychotherapy do you use?

Our main methods are existential analysis and logotherapy. Our psychologists have studied the existential approach to consulting in accordance with the European standard GLE International under the supervision of Alfried Langle. Some students are also interested in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). We apply this method, too, and also use sand tray therapy. The choice of an approach depends on the specialist and the client’s problem.

Medical, Psychological and Social Assistance Center. Credit: vk.com/psyhelp_itmo
Medical, Psychological and Social Assistance Center. Credit: vk.com/psyhelp_itmo

We arrange relaxation and meditation sessions, psychological games, practical lessons, etc. Both students and employees take part in them. Due to the social distancing measures, this aspect of our work has been temporarily put on hold but our clients can’t wait for these events to start again. Apart from consultations, we also provide psychological correction if necessary. Our center has its PsyLine page on VK and there’s also a psychological club.

Are there a lot of inquiries?

We give about 1,100-1,200 consultations per year. Students from every faculty come to us. Since 2021, the amount of clients has increased. There are many first-time clients. In March, we made 129 consultations and 54 of them were for the first-time clients. The problems they come with aren’t related to the period of self-isolation and remote studying that is now over. We call this the “Monday phenomenon”: life got back on track and people try to solve the tasks they were postponing.

Last year was hard for everyone. Was there an increase in the number of inquiries?

It’s hard to say. It seems that for students, remote studying and self-isolation weren’t that difficult. In June 2020, at an interuniversity conference, psychologists exchanged opinions on the amount and features of students’ inquiries for psychological support. We concluded that there were no special climaxes. This opinion was backed up by another conference in March 2021.

It was harder for employees. There was a lot of additional work related to moving the learning process online, as well as other obstacles. This affected their mental health. There were also more inquiries of staff members regarding the epidemic-induced fears. Sometimes panic spread inside a group due to one person’s fears or false assumptions.