Theresa Novak is a first-generation Italian-American who grew up in Northeast Ohio. As the director of the Center for Student Wellness & Counseling Services at NEOMED, she provides counseling and oversees student wellness, including health insurance enrollment and immunizations. Prior to coming to Rootstown in August 2014, she was the assistant director of counseling and oversaw prevention and outreach services at Baldwin Wallace University. She has also been a clinical counselor in private practice.
Theresa Novak spoke recently with The Pulse.
Q: What drew you to counseling?
A: I was always focused on other people’s needs. I thought, how can I be of service? I feel what I do is a privilege, because people come to me with personal details of their life that can be very dark. I love the expression – it’s an anonymous saying—‘When your heart speaks, take good notes.’ Counseling is heart work.
Q: What are some common concerns among students?
A: Test anxiety is one. A student preparing for an exam may begin with ‘I’m not quite getting the material,’ then go to ‘My peers know more than me’ and then into full catastrophizing: ‘I’m going to fail the exam and then I’m going to be dismissed from medical school.’ We all catastrophize at times.
Q: How can you help?
A: I teach relaxation techniques, mindfulness and guided imagery. Breathing techniques can be helpful in calming the body. People sometimes think they can do them just once, but you have to practice so that when you’re in the stressful situation you can engage yourself and direct yourself away from chaotic thoughts. Also, people forget their successes in the middle of their anxiety. I remind them to remember their successes.
Q: Can you suggest any other techniques?
A: Identifying negative self-talk, which are specific thoughts that can make you anxious. I teach students how to identify and reframe the negative thoughts and to understand that thinking something doesn’t make it true or that it will happen. I also recently organized a holistic health fair in the NEW Center, where students could learn about acupuncture, reiki and massage as alternatives to traditional medicine.
Q: What are some of the topics students want to discuss with you?
A: Sexual orientation, sexual assault, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), substance abuse, eating disorders, depression or generalized anxiety about being away from home for the first time – all of these topics. People bring along family issues and relationship issues to school, and there may be a biological component to what they are feeling if they have anxiety or depression, so we talk about family history, too. I can put students in touch with an internist and with a psychiatrist if they need medicine. There is a stigma; students sometimes don’t want to take medicine for mental health and they can be hesitant about counseling, but the number of student visits is going up. Students talk to each other.
Q: What do first-year students at NEOMED fear in particular?
A: Students are afraid that what they face here will be monumental. They have to adjust to the rigor of spending large amounts of time in study outside the classroom. I talk to them about finding a balance in how you spend your time—about how research shows that physical exercise improves concentration and focus. Also, in a new environment you think, “I don’t have all the people in my environment that I was close to.’’ I talk to students about joining organizations and building social skills.
Q: How do you like to spend your free time?
A: I love to bake and cook but more than anything I like to spend my time with those I have affection for. It sustains me. I love having people around my table, eating my food. I am all about heart.
Counseling for NEOMED students is free and confidential. No insurance is needed. The Center for Student Wellness and Counseling is located in the NEW Center, inside the Summa Physicians Family Practice office suite. To make an appointment, send an email to email@example.com