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Pellissippi State finding many ways to support students' mental health

The counseling office at Pellissippi State Community College usually helps students with a mix of personal, academic and career topics, but since the pandemic, referrals for personal counseling have risen significantly.

“It centers around the isolation and loneliness for the students,” said Angela Obear, a licensed clinical social worker who has been a counselor at the Blount County campus since 2018.

Community college students typically have more barriers to continuing their education. They may be caring for children or their parents, and the pandemic has added concerns ranging from illness to housing for families. Plus most classes are online in some form.

“It’s not exactly what they expected for their college experience, doing it from their bedroom or trying to find a quiet place in their house,” Obear said. “It’s been really tough on them emotionally, mentally.”

A nursing student may have to balance clinical experience requirements with children being quarantined at home. Even finding a quiet space for a study group has been a challenge. “They’ve had to get very creative,” she said.

With some classes meeting in an asynchronous online format — students working on their own time and the class never meeting together even online — one freshman told the counselor, “I don’t even know what my professors look like.”

Obear said more students have reported suicidal thoughts in the past year than the previous two.

New methods

Usually Obear is the only counselor on the Friendsville campus, but with staff working remotely, Pellissippi State’s counselors are able to work with students from any campus.

“I had never done telehealth with my clients before,” she said, so that was a big adjustment at first but has become comfortable and even has some advantages.

She supervises two interns remotely, one doctoral candidate and one working toward a master’s degree. If they have concerns about suicidal thoughts or behavior during an an appointment, they can bring in Obear with the Microsoft Teams software.

But some students struggle just to find a private place to discuss their situation and may log in from a car, for example.


Before the pandemic, counselors were making themselves available where students gather on campus to make it easier to start conversations or answer questions.

Now there is online time twice a week when students can pop in, usually to ask a question related to a class assignment. But Obear said at least one student who had begun experiencing hallucinations reached out that way.

Educators also are looking out for students who are struggling. “Usually professors are the first one to know something is going on,” Obear said, such as when a student stops turning in assignments. Even students who have previously excelled academically have struggled with planning study time in an online environment.

Counselors across the Pellissippi State system take turns answering a counseling email address, and they are reaching out in multiple ways, from regular emailed newsletters to speaker events.

They also help plug students in to resources both through the campus and in the community, working with Pellissippi’s Student Care and Advocacy and Panther Help groups, for example, for help with issues from food insecurity to internet access.

For students struggling with isolation, they highlight opportunities to be engaged, often through the SEAL (Student Engagement And Leadership) team. For example, SEAL hosted an online cooking event for which students could register and pick up a meal kit.

Some students who planned to focus only on their education have taken jobs to be around other people and find a sense of purpose. Others have volunteered for activities such as packing food bags for the Pellissippi Pantry, which not only allows them to connect with peers outside of school work but also can fulfill volunteer requirements for scholarships.

With clubs and other organizations online, that has provided a new opportunity for students who might have struggled to attend a meeting at another campus.

Pellissippi State also began a support group for students with autism last fall and is developing one for LGTBQ+ students.

Last fall, Pellissippi State partnered with Roane State Community College to offer online suicide prevention QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) training, and attendance was about double for the online version compared with previous training that required people to be on-site.

The Navigate Student app includes a link to connect with counseling, and Pellissippi State staff members have conducted phone campaigns to check in with students.

Pellissippi State doesn’t limit the number of counseling sessions a student can have, and if they withdraw from the school, Obear said the counselors will let them know about the behavioral health safety net available from other organizations. “We don’t leave them hanging,” she said.

If taking time off is what they need to do, the counselors also will work to ensure they file the necessary forms with the financial aid office.

Finding calm

The counselor also offers coping skills, such as stress management and mindfulness.

When students are on campus, Pellissippi State provides chair massages on days when final exams are scheduled to help ease the tension. For nursing students, who can’t make lower than a C on an exam and stay in the program, it provides essential oils in scents such as orange and peppermint they can place on a cotton ball or pulse point. Obear said that’s also a technique students can use at home.

She might suggest an app such as Calm or Headspace when students have difficulty shutting their brain off to sleep.

And Obear reminds her interns of the value of just listening to someone who is struggling. “It’s not always the big things that make a difference in counseling,” she said.

She lets students know its OK to feel anxious or nervous sometimes, and she gives them permission to take time out to take care of themselves, even if that is finding joy in the little things.

She helps them learn what their body is telling them and how to set boundaries. “They tend to all think they can’t ever tell anybody no, and then they take on way more than they can manage,” Obear said.

“We all know everyone is struggling and this has been difficult for everybody in many different ways,” she said. “There is help out there. You don’t have to do this alone, and you don’t have to suffer.”

Unfortunately, although depression is treatable, some people still think there is a stigma associated with it and may wait until they are unable to function before reaching out for help.

“You’re not weak for not having all the answers,” Obear said. “That’s what we went to school for, that’s why we like to help people, and that’s what we have to offer.”

Friendsville mulls committing $5,000 for Pellissippi State project, reviews audit

Friendsville leaders want to invest $5,000 in Pellissippi State’s Ruth and Steve West Workforce Development Center — an unfinished project coming to life in the city’s backyard.

Director of Major Gift Development Marilyn Roddy with the Pellissippi State Foundation pitched the funding opportunity to Friendsville commissioners during their Thursday, March 4, meeting; most expressed enthusiasm about finding room in upcoming budgets to back the college’s cooperative effort to grow Blount’s workforce.

“I personally think that we could probably do $5,000 over five years,” Friendsville Mayor Andy Lawhorn told Roddy. It was a funding model and number she suggested during her presentation.

“I think it’s important we do it because it’s going to be kids in our area that are going to be using (the development center) and adults, too,” Lawhorn said.

“You know my heart’s in education and I think this is something that we have needed for a long time,” Commissioner Sandy Bell said. “I’m thrilled to hear this is going to be an opportunity for our students. I hope we can find the money to help do our part.”

Lawhorn noted that when he was a Knox County Schools student, classes the development center plans to offer were part of the standard curriculum. That’s inspired him in recent years to take an active role in growing the city’s workforce by connecting with local high schools.

“I’ve reached out to William Blount and Heritage and tried to talk to ... the building trades classes,” he said. “And I’m not going to lie, I was trying to recruit employees.”

He noted DENSO and Arconic needed the development center “more than anybody.”

“I think our students need it even more,” Bell said. Lawhorn agreed, noting college is not for every student and that tradespeople are becoming scarce in Blount.

Commissioners did not formally commit to the $5,000, but Lawhorn suggested they use the March 23 budget workshop to develop a line item and spend $1,000 a year through 2026.

The workforce development center originally was set to open this fall, but Pellissippi Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Julia Wood told The Daily Times on Friday that the timeline has been delayed.

Though the workforce development center already reached initial fundraising goals, Wood said the foundation is still raising money for “ongoing, additional needs the building might have.”

Backing local education efforts wasn’t the only budgetary matter under scrutiny during Thursday’s Friendsville meeting.

Commissioners also heard a report from city-contracted CPAs Rodefer & Moss, represented by employee Nicole Swint, who reviewed the 2019-20 fiscal year audit, noting some minor issues.

Swint started off emphasizing the city scored a clean audit after years of trying to reconcile issues related to older findings related to “segregation of duties,” according to notes in the 2020 audit.

But this year’s audit also came with several improvement suggestions that Swint outlined in her presentation.

She noted some of the city’s account reconciliation wasn’t completed properly, a water fund inventory list wasn’t handed in on time and many purchase orders for expenditures of more than $50 weren’t obtained, something the city’s internal control manual requires.

In the audit and during the meeting, city leaders committed to addressing these issues and some already have been corrected, Swint said.

Regardless, the city’s net position increased by more than $52,500 in the 2019-20 fiscal year compared to an increase of $107,327 in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the audit.

With bulk-trash discussion, Herron seeks to make good on campaign platform

Freshman Maryville City Council member Sarah Herron is pushing to fulfill on something she stressed during 2020’s campaign season: bulk-trash services.

Herron ran her campaign equipped with a set of issues she wanted to address when she won her seat. Like fellow campaigners Drew Miles, Suzette Donovan and Tom Taylor, she emphasized family, community and small businesses advocacy.

But she also evolved her platform beyond the basics, using social media to advocate for issues including homelessness, transparency, budget cuts and bulk-trash collection — areas she believed could use improvement.

Herron was the second-highest vote-getter in the 2020 race and said in a recent interview with The Daily Times her platform was shaped by people.

“The great thing about a campaign is, you go to people and you ask them, ‘What are the issues that you care about? Tell me about things you wish the city would do,’” she said.

Last fall, she received answers to those questions and wasted no time addressing them online.

“Let’s talk trash,” Herron posted on her campaign’s Facebook page in September 2020, months before she won her seat. “Several voters have asked me about brush and bulk-trash curbside pickup.”

In a Sept. 27, 2020, post, she proffered one idea to help improve what she noted was already a very good service routine.

“A scheduling system would allow residents and businesses to make an appointment for pickup by phone or online,” Herron wrote. “The technology routes trucks based on need. Other cities have had success by adopting these programs. It saves on fuel costs and keeps trash and brush off the streets.”

Fewer than two months after she was sworn in on Dec. 1, 2020, Herron posed that idea during City Council’s Jan. 15 retreat. Though campaign platforms can end up abandoned by the curb, Herron said she wanted to see her bulk-trash conversation turn into action.

From platform to policy

To that end, she recently sat down with City Manager Greg McClain, addressing bulk-trash collection and how it could be improved within Maryville city limits.

Her ideas may come to a future Maryville work session, the monthly meeting in which city leaders have open-floor discussions about how to mold policy and progress to the times.

“I think we have some of the best people working at the city,” Herron said, stipulating that, while she wants to encourage more efficient systems, the level of excellence currently driving services is second to none.

“They care about people and you can tell they have so much pride in their work,” she added. But there’s always room for improvement and Herron is committed to following through on her platform.

So, she has a few ideas.

“It makes sense to me, at the very minimum, to find (bulk-trash service) information online faster and easier,” she said. “That wouldn’t require an overhaul of sanitation workers’ schedules or the addition of trucks or re-mapping anything.

“What I would love to see is a simple portal where people could type in their address and it would provide the zone that they’re in and the date that the pickup is occurring on the calendar.”

Currently, the city has a 32-page, color-coded PDF calendar delineating exactly when and where bulk trash will be collected.

Herron suggested that PDF be turned into something residents can easily navigate, like a basic search engine.

Website updates considered

But the conversation doesn’t have to stop at bulk trash, Herron said, adding that money and time put into a city website loaded with more navigable information would be worthwhile for residents and leadership alike.

“Users want things to be very simple: This is the information I’m looking for, what is the answer?” Herron said.

Maryville’s website has been the premier Blount County source for COVID-19 information since March, 2020, regularly posting case counts, hospital data and intergovernmental updates.

But with a growing population may come needs for an expanded website.

“We had budgeted a couple years ago to do a new website that has those kinds of capabilities,” Maryville Administrative Services Director Jane Groff told council during the January retreat. Until a new website is a reality, Groff said staff is considering a tool to help people know which local government services their address.

Spending on a website rebuild was cut when the pandemic started, Groff said, but there are moves to address it in the upcoming budget. “We’re hoping to clear up a lot of things with one effort,” she added.

Herron’s call for improved trash collection systems came just as Maryville’s rapid growth called for a larger waste-collection fleet.

Council this month voted to buy another $138,382 knuckle boom truck, the tool used to collect bulk trash. That purchase originally was slated for the 2021-22 fiscal year budget, but staff found a way to get it cheaper earlier.

“A lot of communities don’t even do bulk-trash collection,” McClain noted during the January retreat. Herron then suggested a system in which people could sign up for bulk-trash collection appointments, but McClain said that might not be the most efficient path forward.

He suggested a collaborative effort using geographic information systems (GIS) maps and a hypothetical portal that gives residents all the information they need to know about their living address, including bulk-trash collection.

Overall, Herron wants to be a driving force in improving city communications, whether that means advocating for more online services or posting on her Facebook page, now dedicated to providing information about council agendas and city accomplishments.

“My digital background has already been helpful,” Herron told The Daily Times. “Having 18 years in digital communications is something I hope will have a positive impact, starting with bulk trash.”

A copy of Maryville’s current waste collection schedule is attached to the online version of this article at thedailytimes.com.