Back to College: Therapist Feature

6 min read

Welltrack Connect was excited to interview Sarah Ehrich (she/her), a licensed associate counselor at Resilience Lab, and get her thoughts on adjusting back to college this fall. Sarah supports folks struggling with isolation and identity, especially members of the LGBTQ+ , by creating an authentic, empathetic space to unpack emotions and harmful patterns.

  1. What inspired you to become a therapist? What’s your background in working with college students?

From an early age, I recognized that lacking a sense of belonging and experiencing alienation could have a profound impact on our self-perception, relationships, and worldview. Through personal experiences, I came to understand that when offered a safe haven to express our genuine selves, we can gradually break free from the conditioning and the detrimental messages we received during our formative years. Driven by a desire to foster safety, I aspired to create spaces that could empower individuals to embrace their authenticity and cultivate a positive connection with themselves and others. 

While my compass always pointed towards a helping profession, my path to becoming a therapist was far from linear. In 2012, I completed my BA in psychology and subsequently joined a large corporate entity as an administrator. As I ascended the corporate ladder, I felt a growing sense of purposelessness. It dawned on me that my contributions to society lacked significance. This realization pushed me to switch career paths and pursue my dream of becoming a therapist.

I am currently a licensed associate counselor (LAC) practicing in New Jersey. I have worked in both outpatient and residential treatment centers, assisting individuals contending with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders. I lead both individual and group therapy sessions. I’ve helped young adults address an array of challenges, including loneliness, depression, anxiety, substance use, as well as matters of identity and career development. I feel most fulfilled in my work when I see my efforts contribute to individuals developing the self-perceptions, interpersonal relationships and worldviews that enable them to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

  1. What are some practical tips you would offer to college students who are struggling to adjust to college whether that be for the first time or returning to campus?

Students can have very different experiences of university based on their personal, socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds. These experiences can impact whether a student is able to acclimatize to the college environment and pursue the exciting opportunities it has to offer or feel overwhelmed and alienated by it. Students may face a range of challenges including but not limited to heightened anxiety, struggling to develop strong interpersonal skills and build a sense of community, experiencing imposter syndrome and struggling with identity development. International students might also grapple with homesickness and culture shock while other students may face the additional barriers of financial adversity and feeling as though they do not belong to the campus community. 

While it is impossible to list all of the different ways that students might experience the campus environment, it is important to normalize the fact that they might be challenged by it in different ways and to encourage them to develop healthy coping mechanisms and to seek assistance. Students can explore certain coping mechanisms on their own including developing a self-care routine, learning how to set healthy boundaries, and honing time management skills. They can also join on-campus peer support networks and student groups, which can offer safe spaces and opportunities to build supportive communities. If these strategies are ineffective it is also important for students to know that they can reach out to their university’s counseling center to ask for additional support and for help in finding a certified therapist. Seeking support early in their undergraduate programs can help students overcome the challenges that they might face on campus and give them more space to enjoy the broad range of opportunities that their universities offer.  

  1. How do you support and guide students in the LGBTQ+ community with navigating potential feelings of isolation and marginalization on campus?

In my work with young adults of the LGBTQ+ community, I often come across issues of marginalization, feelings of isolation and shame, as well as difficulties navigating sexual and gender identities. This can definitely add to the challenge of adjusting to college life, whether that is on or off campus. In individual therapy sessions, I prioritize creating an inclusive and welcoming environment where LGBTQ+ youth feel comfortable sharing their concerns and experiences. This space is meant to encourage open discussions without fear of judgment. I acknowledge the challenges that LGBTQ+ members may face, and validate feelings around said challenges. Normalizing these experiences can help students feel less alone in their struggles. I assist young adults in developing resilience and coping strategies. This involves empowering them to recognize their strengths, build self-esteem, and develop skills to navigate adversity. I also help clients in processing disclosure around their LGBTQ+ identity, taking into consideration factors such as safety, individual experience, and well-being.  

Additionally, I  encourage young adults to connect with LGBTQ+ groups and peers on campus, join LGBTQ + safe spaces and attend community events. These spaces can offer a supportive network where students can share their experiences and find like-minded peers.

Lastly, I strongly urge LGBTQ+ students seeking one-on-one, professional, support to prioritize seeking mental health services from therapists who offer LGBTQ+ affirming care. Therapists who approach their work from this perspective provide inclusive spaces, are well-versed in LGBTQ+ terminology, and tend to be informed about the specific issues and challenges that the community faces. 

  1. Transitioning to college can be especially difficult for students who have experienced past trauma. What strategies do you find helpful in identifying and addressing these past traumas so that students can find greater stability to focus on their education and personal growth?

People’s responses to trauma can vary, which can make it difficult to pinpoint specific ways of identifying and addressing someone with a history of trauma. This typically requires a full assessment by a mental health professional. However, generally speaking, addressing trauma among college students requires a flexible and individualized approach that prioritizes safety, assesses readiness for reprocessing of event (s), and equips individuals with practical tools to navigate the effects of trauma on their lives.

Given that individuals are at varying points in their journey of healing from trauma, it’s important to identify their current stage. Thus, assessing their readiness to delve into processing traumatic material is essential, as this process can sometimes lead to retraumatization. 

With a focus on college students, the primary emphasis involves establishing a safe and stable environment for the individual which lays the foundation for subsequent healing. It is important to address immediate concerns and implement coping mechanisms to manage distressing emotions or triggers. This involves evaluating the impact of trauma on various aspects of their present life, such as relationships, work, and self-image in order to address these factors directly.  

Incorporating coping tools specifically tailored to trauma-related symptoms is also crucial. Techniques like grounding exercises, breathing and relaxation practices, resourcing, and reintegration of experiences can facilitate healing from trauma. These tools can also empower students to manage distressing events and foster resilience.

  1. As a therapist, what signs should college students watch out for in themselves or their peers that may indicate the need for professional mental health support?

Recognizing early signs of mental health issues is vital for college students navigating transitional pressures. If a student consistently feels down, hopeless, or withdraws from activities they once enjoyed, it may hint at underlying issues like depression. Persistent changes in sleep patterns, significant weight shifts, or unusual eating habits can indicate depression or eating disorders. Unexplained physical ailments might stem from psychological stress. An increased reliance on substances, be it alcohol, drugs, or medications, can signify deeper challenges. A consistent struggle to concentrate, intense feelings of fear, or overwhelming worry can point towards anxiety disorders. Expressions of self-worthlessness, drastic shifts in mood, unusual and sudden onset of elevated affect or mood, talk of self-harm, or suicidal ideation are urgent warning signs. Avoiding situations due to fear or experiencing regular irritability also warrant attention.

While some of these signs might be reactions to temporary stressors, their persistence and intensity are key indicators of deeper mental health concerns. If students see these signs in themselves or peers, they should consider seeking professional support. Encouraging open conversations about mental health can aid in early intervention.

  1. Any final piece of advice or message would you like to share with college students to help them prioritize their mental health and well-being during this important phase of their lives?

During your college years, you’re not just gaining an education but also embarking on a profound journey of self-discovery. It’s a transformative period, filled with both unparalleled opportunities and unprecedented challenges. Amidst academic pressures, forging new relationships, and charting future paths, it’s crucial to remember that your mental health and well-being are the foundations upon which all other successes are built.

First, understand that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Everyone, at some point, needs guidance, support, or just a listening ear. Whether it’s talking to a therapist, confiding in a friend, or seeking advice from a mentor, prioritize these conversations. They have the power to illuminate your path, providing clarity in moments of doubt.

Second, establish routines that cater to both your physical and mental health. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep aren’t just clichés—they are proven pillars that support cognitive function and emotional stability.

Lastly, cultivate mindfulness. This doesn’t necessarily mean meditation, although that can be beneficial. Instead, it’s about taking moments to pause, reflect, and truly experience the present. When overwhelmed, ask yourself: “What do I need right now?” Listen to your inner voice. It often holds the answers you’re seeking.

In this transformative phase, remember that while academic and professional achievements are commendable, they’re enriched when pursued alongside personal growth and well-being. Your mental health isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessary foundation. Prioritize it, cherish it, and remember you’re not alone in your journey.

Sarah’s laid-back and holistic approach aims to help clients feel more connected, present, and confident. Are you a college student in NJ and interested in working with Sarah, check out her Welltrack Connect profile to contact her!

Settling back on campus and ready to begin therapy? Welltrack Connect’s community of over 13,500 licensed behavioral health providers that are ready to support you in whatever you may need!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.