Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many college students have experienced a range of emotions such as grief, loneliness and hopelessness while in isolation, impacting their mental health and wellbeing.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study based on an online survey of 5,412 adults living in the United States between June 24 and 30, the coronavirus pandemic can be linked to mental health-related issues.
Close to 41% of respondents said they were struggling with the pandemic itself or issues related to it, like the social distancing and stay-at-home orders. These respondents reported at least one mental or behavioral health condition.
Specifically, the CDC survey showed that 75% of 18- to 24-year olds reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.
Ben Locke, the senior director of Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services, said that around 25% of students who are reaching out to CAPS for services this semester attribute their concerns to the impact the coronavirus has had on their lives.
Of that 25%, about 50% checked loneliness or isolation as their main reason for seeking help, 49% checked motivation, 48% checked academics and 43% checked missed experiences or opportunities.
“Although the distress that students are reporting to us is currently about average, part of what that means is that CAPS routinely services students who experience a lot of stress,” Locke said. “It’s not as if before COVID the students who we were taking care of had low distress.”
Despite students reporting higher levels of distress, Locke said the demand has decreased in terms of the number of students seeking services since last year at the same point, CAPS currently has more resources than it has “ever had.”
“It may even be faster to get an appointment this year,” Locke said.
With these resources, CAPS recently implemented two new “contracts” on behalf of the university: one on telepsychiatry, services specifically for the Commonwealth Campuses, and one for expanded telecoaching and telecounseling services at University Park that will be able to serve students living at home.
CAPS had previously run into trouble connecting with students across state borders because of legal reasons, Locke said. During the pandemic, many states issued emergency declarations that allowed services to be provided over state lines, but many of the declarations have now expired, again limiting resources for out-of-state students.
In early September, CAPS released a report titled “COVID Impact on College Student Mental Health” that compares students’ levels of distress year-by-year.
Locke explained that the numbers are running “about average,” though CAPS is currently running the comparisons from year-to-year with a “relatively small” pool of students.
He added that the report saw “slight increases” in reported levels of academic stress and family distress, in addition to “slight decreases” in reported alcohol use and in suicidal ideation during the spring.
Locke explained that being in college is “actually a protective factor” when looking at the rates of suicide among college students over the past 40 to 50 years.
“We only have barely begun to gather the data necessary to help us understand whether or not those hypotheses are true,” Locke said. “The fact that [college students’] lives have been negatively impacted doesn’t necessarily mean that across the board… they’ve experienced things dramatically worse.”
Both Caitlin Allen, the secretary and event planner for DMAX at Penn State, and Natalie Stevens, the vice president of the Lift the Mask club at Penn State, believe the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted students’ mental health.
Both clubs are student organizations that aim to destigmatize mental health.
“When it first happened, there seemed to be a higher feeling of anxiety on campus because we didn’t know how it was going to go,” Allen (senior-biology) said. “I definitely heard a lot from our members that it’s the unsure part of it — you don’t know what’s coming.”
Allen said her mental health has “definitely gone downhill,” and she’s “not ashamed” to admit it.
“There’s just so much anxiety about everything that’s going on; everyone feels alone and everyone’s scared,” Allen said. “If you had pre-existing issues, it’s just been made worse by COVID and quarantine.”
Allen believes students might be hesitant to reach out for help, which she thinks might explain why CAPS has not seen a significant increase of students reaching out. She added that more students might be taking advantage of virtual therapy, which can be “more convenient and cheaper with insurance.”
Allen said that students currently residing on-campus can “feel the difference” from last year.
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“I know a lot of people, myself included, are worried about missed opportunities,” Allen said. “If people need help, you’re always deserving of help — there’s nothing wrong with needing a little boost.”
Stevens (graduate-business administration), was “surprised” to hear the data CAPS reported — specifically with concerns of students feeling isolated.
She also believes the summer weather might have made it easier for some struggling with mental health issues.
“I’m getting a little concerned as it’s getting colder to see if people’s reactions are changing,” Stevens said. “The options for meeting people outside of your circle are really going to decline.”
Stevens spoke specifically about the lack of social interaction that comes with remote learning and the impact that might have on students’ wellbeing.
“It’s hard for people to navigate classes; people can’t do work from their own apartments,” Stevens said. “It’s that mitigation of side conversation — stuff that you might think is distracting is really crucial for the way we make teams work.”
Stevens said her “big commute” is now from her bed to her desk.
“It’s hard to adjust to that,” Stevens said. “Even people who consider themselves introverts are having a hard time not having those interactions.”
Zachary McKay, the president of the University Park Undergraduate Association, believes students are feeling “Zoom fatigued.”
“Generally, I think students are faced with a conundrum — that is, that we are in the middle of a pandemic, which nobody at this university could’ve been prepared for, and part of that includes the switch to totally virtual learning and interaction with students,” McKay (senior-economics) said. “Students are still feeling the same amount of stress as other years… [but] it seems a little more [exhausting] than ever before because of that virtual format.”
McKay said in conversations he’s had with students around campus and representatives in UPUA, he’s observed an increase in exhaustion levels due to constant online learning.
“Most would agree an in-person environment might be more conducive to stronger relationships,” McKay said. “There’s a hard balance between protecting the community, those you love and doing good professional work. It’s that balance that many students are trying to find right now.”
McKay said he has been using YOU, a holistic wellness program run by Penn State where students can create “tangible benchmarks” both professionally and personally.
“While these times might seem lonely, know that the students in conversation with administrators are consistently thinking about you and your wellbeing every step along the way,” McKay said. “We want… that Penn State experience while putting the community’s health first and foremost, and students in that will never be forgotten.”
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