As we reach the year benchmark of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the mental scars left behind on the population are making themselves apparent. Among those affected are Montclair State University students, whose social temperature is taken by the Instagram account Montclair State Confessions (@montclairstateconfessions).
This Instagram account, usually reserved for fun anonymous posts, has received seven confessions of suicidal intent this winter. With rising mental health concerns on the horizon, both Montclair State Confessions and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) want to assure the campus community that there is help available to them.
Many Montclair State students are aware of the aforementioned Instagram account, but few know who the student behind it all is. Justin Watson, a junior information technology major, is the brains behind the @montclairstateconfessions account, with 298 posts and over three thousand followers, and counting. Watson started the account in order to bring the community together.
“Montclair State Confessions is an Instagram page that I created to help people share their experiences,” Watson said. “It’s for people to get together and make this school more of a community, because this school is more of a commuter school, so some people don’t really know what’s going on inside these walls. So I’m giving people an outlet to voice their opinions and their situations to see how people can connect with that.”
The account is generally the face of fun confessions that range from relationships to raunchy activity. All posts are anonymous, as they are filled out on a Google form. Even Watson does not know the identity of those who post.
Amidst the sea of fun, alarming cries for help have surfaced. Watson has received seven confessions stating some form of suicidal intent. Before the pandemic these messages were rare, but as it rages on these messages have begun to surface.
“It was a gradual thing because right away the pandemic is new to all of us,” Watson said. “Plus we were told it was going to be short, it was going to be like two weeks to a month. Now that it has been a year, you can start to see the effects on people.”
Watson, in a noble effort, made two Instagram videos on the account where he spoke to the larger Montclair State community about mental health issues. The sincerity in these videos is palpable and one can hear from the tone of Watson’s voice that he wants to help his fellow peers.
“The first video I made was because that’s when I first really started to see them [the suicidal messages.] I wanted to put that as a notice that I was starting to see these,” Watson said. “It was more of a personal video, that I’m here, there are people here, there are things available for you. Now the second video is more of a call for action because the first video I tried to bring awareness to it, but it has only gotten worse. Now, something has to be done and that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
This is a tall task for one person to handle. Watson has reached out to the University Police Department (UPD) and to CAPS about these confessions. Watson can not provide names, as all confessions are anonymous, but now he no longer has to handle this situation alone. Receiving confessions like these, while terrifying for others, has also taken a toll on Watson.
“I’m just like everybody else, so I deal with social and school stress,” Watson said. “Just to see everyone going through what I’m going through and even worse it affects me too. You don’t want to see people go through that, especially if you can try to help them and change it.”
Watson has made a powerful ally to aid him in advising the Montclair State community. Dr. Jaclyn Friedman-Lombardo, the director of CAPS, is happy to work with Watson for the benefit of the campus community’s mental health.
“I think if you have a social media outlet where people talk about suicidal thoughts and feelings, they should be prepared to give them [the students] the proper resources,” Friedman-Lombardo said. “I want him to have support in doing that to make sure the information is safe. I’m happy he’s interested in collaborating because that would be ideal.”
It is important to note that CAPS is in operation, even during the pandemic and still accessible to students in a COVID-19 friendly manner. Services such as group sessions, phone screenings and individual sessions are still available. If the average of six counseling sessions is not enough, students can transition to a group or be assisted in finding a long-term therapist through the CAPS referral service.
“Let’s Talk,” a quick, individual session, has been moved to Zoom and renamed “Let’s Tele-Talk” and is offered nine times a week.
“50% of the people who come here [for Let’s Tele-Talk] sign up for sessions,” Friedman-Lombardo said. “It’s one-on-one and a brief confidential consultation,”
There are also plenty of new options offered through CAPS during the pandemic. TAO Connect, online therapy assistance, offers many modules from relationship problems to depression. It is accessible to students, faculty and staff through a Montclair State email.
There is also a new feature on the CAPS directory, which transfers you to a mental health clinician if faced with an urgent mental health problem. In the past, if CAPS was closed, students would have to contact UPD. Lastly, Kognito training is available through the CAPS website with a Montclair State email to train people to notice signs of depression in others.
Friedman-Lombardo acknowledges the hardship of these times but urges the community to pull through because the light is at the end of the tunnel.
“All the loss we’ve experienced is significant whether it’s loss of life, or jobs, or experience,” Friedman-Lombardo said. “There’s a lot of things we’ve lost this year and I think that contributes to the stress. As we move to the spring and news gets more hopeful, we have things to look forward to.”
With all the help that CAPS is able to offer, it is important to acknowledge they are not supermen. According to Friedman-Lombardo, the ratio of counselors to students is 1 to 2,000 rather than the recommended 1 to 1,000-1,500 as recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services (IACS.) CAPS has been approved by IACS since 2014.
There are space constraints for Friedman-Lombardo and her fellow CAPS counselors. Before the pandemic, there were plans to give CAPS more space in the Student Center, but Friedman-Lombardo explained that these plans have been put on hold indefinitely, if not canceled. A standstill in the hiring process has also left a position vacant within the CAPS offices.
With so much weight on the shoulders of the counselors at CAPS, Watson believes that Montclair State administrators and campus institutions like Residence Life should offer support to the students on campus.
“If you have to tell the RA to do wellness checks, take everyone into the hallway one-on-one to see how they are doing, just check-ins to make sure these people are okay,” Watson said. “Something like that, something small, so there are notes of people who might not be okay, so we know if it is time to step in.”
The larger Montclair State community has also seen suicidal confessions on Montclair State Confessions. Edward DuCoin, a senior film major, noticed these alarming confessions surfacing among the usually upbeat content.
“I should preface that I’m not a mental health expert at all, but it definitely seems like the people who are sending those things to the [Montclair State] Confessions account are mainly looking for help, or don’t know where to go and are using that as a thing,” DuCoin said. “It’s very jarring because no one expects the page to be used for that reason.”
DuCoin believes that Montclair State can also be doing more to aid CAPS in their fight for student’s mental health. Although he has seen the emails that come out occasionally in the Red Hawk News, he would like to see more through other avenues.
“More on their social media pages,” DuCoin said. “There might be stuff I haven’t seen, but other than CAPS, I haven’t seen the Montclair [State] page talk about it.”
Watson stands at the forefront of this mental health crisis since he is a voice for the concerns of Montclair State students. He received these confessions and made the noble stand to aid his fellow peers. In order to fight off the mental fog, Watson wants to remind everyone that you have to fight for yourself during these trying times.
“You got to remember why you came here to begin with,” Waston said. “There’s a goal you came here with. You can’t just forget it, you’ve got to let it push you. Maybe you won’t be able to conquer the whole thing in one try, but try taking little goals and conquering one at a time. It’ll help.”
Mental Heath Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Available 24 hours: 800-273-8255
CAPS: 973-655-5211 (Option 2 after hours)