“I’ve been out eight weeks,” said Regnier, who has anxiety and hyperactive disorder and attention deficit and he was sporting sweats when he finally made it to practice in early February. “I have been fighting to stay mentally strong.”
Their struggle, and openness, are now commonplace, both on this Lutheran campus of 3,100 students and at universities across the country.
It’s hard to overstate how much the pandemic has affected the college experience and affected the well-being of students. For those already burdened by the demands of social media and fears about how to succeed in the world, covid has piled up.
Students have resisted changing academic schedules and mask protocols. They have faced restrictions on freely socializing that builds friendships and a sense of belonging. As one Concordia student put it, “I haven’t had a normal year of college that hasn’t been affected by covid.”
Data from a 2021 Healthy Minds Network Study showed that 34 percent of college respondents had anxiety disorder and 41 percent had depression, rates that have increased in recent years. More broadly, nearly 73 percent in the American College Health Association’s Fall 2021 National College Health Assessment Survey reported moderate or severe psychological distress.
For years, college students have been striving to improve campus mental health services, such as more and easier access to counselors, along with increased awareness and sensitivity, including faculty including suicide prevention and other hotline numbers on the syllabi. They have received a lukewarm response from administrators who have traditionally viewed mental health as a private matter, not an institutional one.
That is changing. Covid is opening up a conversation that students are desperate to have.
There are not enough professionals to meet the growing demand, but this goes beyond the number of counselors. Students are pushing for a variety of tools and cultural change. What they want is more discussion and more attention on a subject that was previously considered taboo.
“We should always be talking about mental health. It’s one of the best things you can do to prevent suicide,” said Kelsey Pacetti, a senior majoring in social work at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, a campus of 11,000 students in a small town between Madison and Milwaukee.
Pacetti, who described herself as “a survivor of multiple suicide attempts,” is president of the campus chapter of Active Minds, which helps students advocate for changes in campus mental health, from more flexible academic practices to message integration.
Nationwide, the number of Active Minds chapters has more than doubled in the past six years to more than 600, including a presence in 130 high schools, said Becky Fein, director of training and engagement. “The pandemic,” she said, “has spurred conversation and openness around mental health in ways we haven’t seen before.”
As a student at Dartmouth in 2020, Sanat Mohapatra launched a mental health peer support app, Unmasked, that kept students connected as the pandemic sent them home. She now has 12,000 users at 46 schools. Students post anonymously, sharing experiences from the medications they take, and side effects, to painful battles with social anxiety.
Recently, Mohapatra said, more of the 75 daily posts the app receives are from students discussing “what mental health should look like on campus: what’s the role of the administration, what’s the role of the students?”
Pacetti’s Active Minds chapter, which grew from fewer than a dozen members to 35 during the pandemic, provides valuable support.
“It’s a place where I don’t feel like there is stigma and I can be myself and share how I feel,” she said. At a recent meeting, students made Valentine’s cards for themselves.
However, Pacetti also wants an institutional change; she wants mental health education required. Why are there “so many random requirements, but why isn’t mental health one of those?” she said. “Everyone deserves the skills to get through college, throughout life.”
That view — that talking about mental health prevents problems rather than creates them — is reaching administrators, said Diana Cusumano, director of the JED Foundation’s campus and wellness initiatives, which guides universities in creating supports for mental health and suicide prevention.
“One of the big changes we’ve seen is a huge interest in making sure students on campus have what they need for their mental health,” he said. “And the interest comes from presidents and rectors.”
In Concordia, as in many of the 400 schools that have worked with JED, extension followed tragedy. Two students killed themselves in the fall of 2017 and the summer of 2018, said Beth DeJongh, an associate professor of pharmacy practice who knew both of them. She co-leads the JED campus team, which brings together students, faculty, and staff from across campus to examine the university’s operations, from furlough policies (it lacked a formal one) to how it communicates with students.
“I needed something to pour my pain into,” DeJongh said. “I wanted to focus on prevention.”
The students clearly wanted help; campus counseling use increased 23 percent from 2019 to 2020. However, it could take weeks to see someone. Even making an appointment was difficult, said Tracy Tuffey, who retired in December as head of the psychology department but still serves as a life coach on the campus wellness team.
“We had no admission,” he said. There was also no receptionist. Because the counselors were in session, they did not respond to student messages until the end of the day. Also, all the councilors were white, which is also a problem in other places. “Our students of color weren’t looking for the counseling center,” Tuffey said.
Since not all students need “full therapy,” as Tuffey put it, Concordia embarked on a pilot in October to offer students other support, hiring five life coaches. Three are black. All were trained by Daniel Upchurch, an assistant professor of psychology at Louisiana Monroe University, whose application, positivity+facilitates online coaching and mentoring with a focus on providers from diverse backgrounds.
De’Shawn Ford, a junior majoring in psychology and president of the Black Student Union, said the coaches “have broken down a barrier to mental health when it comes to our black students.” Several, including himself, are now meeting with life coaches, he said.
The school also hired two intake and triage coordinators who assess what help a student needs. Now when students reach out, they get a response within 24 hours and urgent requests are answered even faster, said Rebecca Hasbani, one of the coordinators. The center has some evening hours. Recently, Hasbani said, a student who expressed suicidal ideation walked in at 5 pm “If we hadn’t been there, he might not have communicated,” she said.
Concordia’s efforts also include a quiet, dim room, “Evelyn’s Place,” named for a beloved former employee, complete with massage chairs, heavy blankets, and a stress management and resiliency training (SMART) lab tool that teaches breathing techniques. Miniature versions, “Evelyn’s Corners,” are stuffed into dorms and pharmacy school.
Nora Rudzinski, a senior majoring in mass communications, said the spaces are a sanctuary for students “who may not have crippling depression but feel overwhelmed.” She’s going to “get out of my mind space,” she said. “It’s literally walking into that room and sitting on the floor.”
Students can do a lot to help themselves, said Jennifer Laxague, deputy director of LiveWell, the health and wellness office on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. She supervises and trains students as peer coaches and health educators. Last February, her office piloted one-on-one peer wellness counseling sessions, at first virtually, then, starting in September, in person.
Students make appointments online with one of three coaches and set a goal for the session. Nikita Nerkar, a peer wellness coach and Phoenix senior majoring in psychology, said students are often “looking to have a space to talk about things.”
Many feel stress about deadlines and schoolwork, made worse by poor sleep habits and time management. Kaycie Opiyo, a peer wellness coach and senior from Vancouver, British Columbia, who specializes in biochemistry and public health-global health, reminds those who feel defeated of their strengths and that it is “a common experience, and not are alone”.
There is a counseling center on campus, but Laxague said universities “can’t provide long-term therapy for 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 students.” Nor should they: “A lot of what people call ‘mental health struggles’ are really about discovering this human experience and figuring out how to be an adult,” he said.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) are free services 24 hours a day. hours that can provide support, information and resources.