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    BU program offers students a path through anxiety

    D’Amoura Rackard (right) was coached by Niteo director Courtney Joly-Lowdermilk at BU.
    Kayana Szymczak for STAT
    D’Amoura Rackard (right) was coached by Niteo director Courtney Joly-Lowdermilk at BU.

    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 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.


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

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    Then he found a program at Boston University 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, BU has offered one of the few programs in the nation dedicated to teaching students the coping skills that will give them a shot at getting back into school or work while managing their 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.

    Ten students shuffled in on the first day of classes this September and found seats 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.

    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.

    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.

    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 to 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 come 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.

    “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.”

    A cornerstone of the program is personal coaching. Every student gets paired with a staffer who walks the student 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, winding through the back streets of Brookline, talking about what comes next.

    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.

    The Niteo program has also tried to give Jones tools to manage his fears about the future. In one class, he did mock interviews. In another, he did improv.

    For someone with social anxiety, it was a bit of a nightmare. But he got through it.

    “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.’ ”

    Niteo surveys alumni about four months after they graduate and has found that 83 percent are either back in college, working, or both. Students reported having better emotional ties, stronger academic skills, less anxiety and depression, and a healthy amount of hopefulness.

    Niteo has its limits, though. It can give students much-needed support — but it can’t wipe away the discrimination they may encounter when they leave. Or eliminate their mental health challenges.

    Jones’s anxiety has made it difficult for him to get through an interview or hang onto a job. He’s had to leave two jobs in the first few hours. So the idea of giving work another go scared him. But in December, with the encouragement of his coach at Niteo, he started a part-time job at a local bookstore.

    He couldn’t sleep the nights leading up to that first day of work. “I was feeling really bad about it, whether I could do it at all,” he said.

    He turned to the Niteo staff. They shot him texts throughout his first shift, encouraging him and checking in to see how he was doing.

    He called his dad when he made it through the first day — and the second.

    “I am thrilled for him. That alone is a huge step,” his dad said.

    Jones still feels anxious about his upcoming shifts. “But I know I can do it,” he said.

    Seven of his peers from this semester’s Niteo class recently learned they’d been accepted back to college. Two more decided their next step would be part-time classes and work. One student will return to Boston University next semester to spend more time at the center.

    As for Jones, he’s still working at the bookstore.

    And he just learned that he’s been selected as a peer mentor for the Niteo program. He’ll start advising other students in the spring.

    Megan Thielking can be reached at megan.thielking@
    . Follow her on Twitter at @meggophone