The mental health pandemic among students: “COVID made me rebuild all of my coping strategies from scratch”
The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health worldwide. For college students, it's another unwelcome weight.
“COVID made me rebuild all of my coping strategies from scratch.”
While 37 million people have been affected by the pandemic worldwide, millions have also been suffering from mental health struggles brought on by the pandemic. The most common illnesses include anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, which are especially prevalent in people with pre-existing conditions, health professionals and people that have contracted the disease.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, while one in 25 Americans suffer from serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression In general, more than 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
College health professionals have been monitoring the struggles of the students who speak out about their mental health but many, it seems, stay silent and deal with their mental illness alone, prompting more action by the university.
Brad Wolgast, Center for Counseling & Student Development (CCSD) director, states that despite the pandemic, less people are reaching out to the counseling center. Wolgast recalls the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and how the center prepared themselves for an increase in students seeking help but were met with a decrease instead. Instead of the usual wait for an appointment with a counselor, a lower number of students no longer have to wait to meet with someone.
“We’re seeing something similar these days with the pandemic. So the numbers are actually down a little bit of the students reaching out. There may be a lot of reasons for that, you know, we are on zoom, and everybody is on zoom a lot, it’s exhausting,” Wolgast says. “But we also see that many students (like after 9/11) they’re refocusing what they’re paying attention to and how they’re taking care of themselves. So it’s a global pandemic, a lot of things to be worried about, if you’re at home with family then you have some protection and people around you and probably have some resources around you for feeling better differently than when you are on campus.”
While college is often challenging enough for students, the stress and anxieties during the pandemic seem to intensify everything. Students now deal with online classes, assignments and independent living without social interaction. College students are seeing changes in their sleep and eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, worsening of mental health conditions and an increase in the use of tobacco and alcohol. Students that lack social support, have a bad financial situation, have poor health and emotional background are even more likely to suffer from mental health issues.
“Anxiety, depression and lower mood — those are the top three reasons people seek out mental health care during college and there’s a whole host of other things that fall beneath those — from relationship issues, family problems and financial issues,” Wolgast says. “So, when you move into the world of the pandemic, you pick all those ordinary day-to-day stressors, and you basically have three other layers of very intense worry from the pandemic itself to getting sick and staying safe to your family getting sick and staying healthy.”
Patrick Cody, a twenty-two-year-old student with pre-existing conditions of anxiety and depression, recalls the moment he knew the pandemic affected him.
“I actually did have a panic attack at work, I remember [it] happening because it was the first day we had to switch to only operating with a curbside pick up,” Cody says.
Before this event, Cody had gone months without experiencing panic attacks. However, due to the mandatory changes to his job, the fear of contracting the virus and the eventual time off from work, his mental health started to suffer.
“For a while, I was perfectly fine because I’m used to staying in, I have friends I would talk to and play video games with every day. I started to get really depressed for a while starting in June until I went back to work in July because the lack of routine eventually got to me,” Cody says.
A report by the CDC published on August 14, 2020 about the pandemic’s effect on mental health identified that a disproportionate number of 18-to 24-year-olds had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days. A separate study by the Student Experience in the Research University found that students are screening positive for depression and anxiety at higher rates than in previous years. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the stressors of the economic crisis and the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic could increase suicidal ideation. These individuals should have immediate consultation with a mental health professional or seek emergency assistance.
“Somewhere around 10% of the students that we see report some sort of serious thoughts of suicide in the last month, and that’s pretty consistent with the national average for college students,” Wolgast says. “Our staff is talking about how we’re seeing fewer students this semester, but the students that we are seeing are more concerning and have more issues and problems going on than typical students we typically see.”
One of the main issues students are now facing is the isolation because they may not be able to have visitors, they lack a normal routine and students can attend unsafe gatherings and put each other at risk.
“Usually, you go to class, I meet somebody; somebody does something; the class laughs; we all connect with somebody; we all do something; we crack a joke. All of those sort of day-to-day normal experiences are 99% of them are kind-of gone, and that’s a big part of being a person and having a life. Having those little moments day to day and losing so much of that so consistently for so long is exhausting; it’s draining for your mental health and for your ability to feel like yourself,” Wolgast says.
Other students may also be struggling with the loss of a family member to COVID-19 and may not have their support systems to aid them. These issues can lead to substance abuse, unnecessary risks and deteriorating mental health.
“When you’re just sitting at home, or when you’re just not doing as many things, or when it’s Tuesday, it’s just more likely that you’re going to grab something to numb yourself,” Wolgast says. “If you have problems with those issues it’s easy to get worse quickly.”
The stress of the pandemic not only causes fear from students about their health, the health of loved ones and their financial situation, but also about their future career goals. Elizma Pretorius, a recently graduated pre-med alumna working in the emergency room of a hospital, says she went from enjoying her last semester and waiting to find out about medical school acceptances to moving back in with her family and taking a year off before med school.
“I think that COVID-19 is very damaging to my mental health due to the uncertainty it creates about others’ health, the changes the pandemic brought to my living arrangements, my inability to take fitness classes safely and even just from not being able to hang out with a friend,” Pretorious says. “COVID made me rebuild all of my coping strategies from scratch.”
Pretorius, with the added pressure of her academics, says she sees her mental health taking a toll while working in the medical field.
“In the Emergency Department, you work under a lot of pressure and see human tragedy and even death on a regular basis,” she says. “But I feel guilty reaching out to professionals for help as I don’t pay for my own healthcare, and I feel horrible bringing another cost into an already financially taxing time.”
Like Pretorius, Eric Longoria, a mathematics major, has seen a change in his mental health but this time in a positive direction.
“My mental health has improved from before the pandemic to now, but I don’t know if that is because of the pandemic or if it’s just a coincidence,” he says. “It has given me the motivation to learn more about politics and history. It helps the world make more sense, but I do have more anxiety about it in general.”
Despite the general need for mental health care, students have expressed that the pandemic has made it harder to reach out and access it. The need for prevention efforts such as screenings, psychoeducation and overall support is especially dire in a time of mental health crisis. The university offers mental health services and ways to seek professional mental health assistance. Since the start of the semester, the CCSD, with a special thanks to Sharon Lee, has designed group activities with a different format to engage students. These activities offer remote opportunities such as open sessions that allow students to show up and be open and encourage them to talk to each other without any underlying agendas.
But, is this enough for a mental health crisis during a pandemic?
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article the first name of Dr. Sharon Lee was misspelled. It has now been corrected.