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About Mental Health

BOSTON — Evan Jones was excited when he signed up for a contemporary art class at community college. Then the professor announced the course would focus heavily on class participation.

“That was the first class that I dropped,” he said.

Jones’s persistent, severe anxiety has shadowed him for years. He’s struggled to pipe up in class and to make friends. His anxiety was so acute, he left high school; after getting his GED, he has bounced around, taking classes at three colleges over the past five years. He blamed himself every time he dropped a class.

“I’ve never really found the right place for me,” he said.

Then he found a program that promised to do what every other school had failed at: support him as a whole person, not just try to push him through credit after credit.

For the past three years, Boston University has offered one of the few programs in the nation dedicated to teaching students who have had to leave college the coping skills that will give them a shot at getting back into school or work while managing severe anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health conditions.

For Jones, 24, who has a sharp mind for technology and a striking openness about his struggles, it was much-needed shot at figuring out a future for himself.

“We were running out of options for him. This is exactly what he needed,” his dad, Jeremy Jones, said.

The semester-long program takes its name from the Latin word niteo: to thrive.

Coming to terms with a profound loss

Ten students shuffled in on the first day of classes this September and found a seat around a conference table. They played one of those classic getting-to-know-you games: say your name, your go-to karaoke song, and the last college you attended.

That last question spoke to why they were all here. They’d been enrolled in colleges and universities across the country. And then they weren’t. Some opted for medical leave or were asked by their universities to take time off after a mental health crisis. Others dropped out.

Taking time off from college for mental health problems is a loss. It’s a loss of independence, of routine, of friends, of a place, a purpose, and a clear-cut goal.

NITEO fills that gap. It gives the students a peer group and a place to go three days a week. It gives them assignments, accountability, and a personal coach to cheer them on. It gives them a path forward.

It also gives students an explanation for their absence from campus. It’s not easy to tell friends they’re home for the semester due to a mental health issue. Instead, they  can say, “I’m taking classes at Boston University this semester.” And it’s true.

“They’re learning to manage a significant health condition and go to college at the same time,” said Courtney Joly-Lowdermilk, who runs the NITEO program and has worked for more than a decade in mental health and disability services in higher education.

Joly-Lowdermilk is brimming with energy when other people are still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. One student called her “a giant ball of enthusiasm who cares about everybody.” She keeps an impressive mental Rolodex of every student’s assignments, anxieties, even their weekend plans. She runs the program along with a crew of compassionate coaches and teachers who bend over backwards to meet a student’s needs, whether that’s something as simple as sending them a wake-up text or as deeply personal as crafting a letter recommending that they be reinstated at school.

NITEO also leans on peer mentor interns, who’ve completed the program and come back to give the kind of guidance only another young person can offer.

The program isn’t right for every student, and even those who graduate continue to grapple with challenges at school and work. But the early data on alumni are promising and other colleges are now looking to replicate the program, which charges students $8,500 for the semester. Grants from the Sidney R. Baer Jr. Foundation — Baer himself had schizophrenia — covered tuition for the first four cohorts of students. Now, donations from the families of former NITEO students help cover some of the costs for those who can’t pay.

The need is substantial: More than one-third of incoming college students reported feeling anxious frequently in a survey conducted last year by the University of California, Los Angeles. Another 12 percent said they’d often been depressed in the past year. Many of those students turn to the free or low-cost counseling services on their campuses for help. But colleges have struggled to keep up in recent years as demand has spiked.

“There’s no question. The need for mental health services is increasing dramatically across the board,” said Ben Locke, the director of counseling and psychological services at Penn State University.

That’s put a strain on many college counseling centers. A STAT investigation earlier this year found that students on many campuses were stranded on weeks-long waitlists for basic counseling services. And many schools offered only a limited amount of care — on some campuses, just two free appointments a year.

Some students end up taking medical leave, if it’s offered. But the time off school — and the transition back — can be incredibly tough. To return to college, students often have to fill out applications, meet with a counselor, and make the case that they’re ready to come back.

The NITEO program is a test run.

“We assign a paper and they feel their anxiety ratcheting up,” said Dori Hutchinson, director of services at the BU Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, which houses the NITEO program. “We need to provide a lab for them here to practice those skills.”

Though most don’t count as college credits, every class is an opportunity help students confront their anxieties. An improv session is a chance to practice public presentations and prepare the students for that sickening feeling of being put on the spot by a professor. A lecture about resilience is a chance to practice note-taking.

There’s also a strong emphasis on social connection. Every Friday, the students hang out after class. They’ve gone to the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston Common, carved pumpkins and ice skated. They crushed their coaches in a students vs. staff basketball game, 36 to 24.

This semester’s participants hail from mainly from Massachusetts, though there are students who came from colleges out of state, too. Their interests range from video game design and dance to speech pathology and foreign language. Their mental health challenges range from anxiety and attention disorders to depression and bipolar disorder.

They’re a remarkable peer group — despite their differences, they each know, in a visceral way, what the others are going through. That’s a comfort to students who’ve been singled out at their own schools because of their mental health challenges.

“Everyone’s working on things and everyone’s trying their best to get past those issues,” Jones said. “I don’t feel like I’m the broken one.”

‘I just kind of kick-started him’

A cornerstone of the program is personal coaching. Every student gets paired with a staffer who walks them through even minor tasks that can feel overwhelming, from filling out transfer applications to managing homework.

It isn’t your typical once-a-week counseling session. Coaches set up early morning coffee dates with students dealing with depression who have a hard time getting out of bed. They come up with healthier meal plans. They FaceTime about assignments with looming deadlines. They send wake-up texts.

Every Tuesday, Jones and his coach, Paul Cherchia, went on a run.

At the start of the program, Jones had set goals including getting his own physical wellness back on track and finding ways to be productive on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the program doesn’t meet. So he and Cherchia — who got a graduate degree in psychology while working in admissions at BU — set up a plan to go running on Tuesdays during lunch. They wound through the back streets of Brookline, a neighborhood peppered with beautiful homes set back from the road, talking about what comes next for Jones.

One day, they jogged around the Charles River when a fierce storm rolled in. Wind whipped their faces. They kept running. For Cherchia, it’s a way to make sure that Jones sees him as part of his team — a true mentor — not just an instructor who’s trying to march him through the program.

After months of running with Cherchia, Jones feels comfortable enough to jog solo. He can run two to three miles during lunch and sends Cherchia his “Map My Run” path when he’s done. He’s also started reaching out to other students on his own to ask them to work out with him. That’s a huge step for a young man who for years has been severely anxious about forging friendships.

“I just kind of kick-started him and was there with him for a few weeks,” Cherchia said.

The question of life after NITEO has hung over Jones’s head all semester. So Cherchia came up with a homework assignment: They’d each make a list of all the possible options, then compare notes. They talked about Jones going back to community college and finishing his degree in gaming and computer simulation. He didn’t feel great about that. They talked about him going to a coding bootcamp or getting a part-time job.

Each option came with its own anxieties.

The NITEO program has tried to give Jones tools to manage his fears. In one class, he did mock interviews. With another project, PhotoVoice, students learn to capture their challenges — and their hopes — through a camera lens. And in a session of Open Studio, a class that incorporates music, comedy, and art into the idea of wellness, Jones did improv.

For someone with social anxiety, it was a bit of a nightmare. Jones and another student played a game of “Yes, and!” in front of the class. The premise is simple: Two people have a conversation, and every sentence has to start with “yes, and …”

Jones can’t remember what the scenario even was — he remembers only how anxious he felt.

“I was extremely stressed and in my head. It’s a fuzzy haze,” he said. It’s something he said he never would have done before. It wasn’t a massive milestone to him, but it mattered.

“It feels to me like a piece of evidence I can use in the future,” he said. “I can think back on [it] and say, ‘I was able to do that, so maybe I can push myself and do something else.’”

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