Lauren Rhoads is a high-performing business student at the College of Charleston, the kind who color-codes her to-do list and does the lion’s share of the work in group assignments. This senior business major was cruising through her college career with internships lined up and jobs awaiting until Covid hit.
Rhoads lost a job and found herself struggling to study, eat, work, and rest all in the same apartment. She’s anxious about the political climate and vexed about her job prospects despite a high GPA and good work experience. She’s stressed about her family, her roommates, and the disconnection she feels from others.
“It’s kicked me in the ribs,” she lamented.
30% of College Freshmen Have Mental Illness
Rhoads isn’t alone. Young Americans were already under serious stress, with 30% of incoming college freshmen showing signs of mental illnesses like depression and PTSD, according to the World Health Organization. The double-whammy of a pandemic and social unrest amounted to piling on for young people who were already depressed by reading daily about others’ idealized lives on social media.
Meanwhile, the schools they attend are struggling to transform themselves into virtual educational institutions with reduced financial resources – and with mixed success. With few students on campus, there is diminished opportunity to monitor and support them while they experience heightened emotional distress.
Fewer Students Seeking Help
Indeed, college health services across the country report a dramatic decline in students accessing mental health supports. Psychiatrist Victor Schwartz says more likely students learning online are seeking help at home. He also says remaining at home might be a more prudent choice for students who are vulnerable. He advocates for loosening state licensing barriers against telehealth services.
“Providing telehealth services that are 75% as good as providing services in person is better than 0%,” he said.
At the same time, it’s estimated that half of students fail to seek help at all and instead suffer alone. This may be exacerbated by the disconnection students are currently feeling from their campuses. “Very often the counseling visit is encouraged by a friend or classmate but may not be happening now,” Schwartz noted.
Higher Education is Held Responsible for Student Welfare
Colleges and graduate schools must be attuned to the new reality and prepared to respond, said Carlota Ocampo, during a webinar conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ocampo is provost at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Every office that a student must interact with is part of student path, she said. “We regularly have meetings where cross-campus departments meet to discuss different regulations and paperwork, so we can uncover where the barriers are. Tech platforms that enable constant communication can be helpful. One department can raise a red flag about a student and another department can address it.”
The issue is even worse for students who felt “other” even before the pandemic. Depression and anxiety levels were higher for racial and sexual minorities prior to the pandemic and it is even more acute now, says Chase Glenn, director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance in Charleston.
“For those already living at the margins in our community or at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, the stress and anxiety they feel are borne out of their real-life struggle on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Not a Great Time to Be a Student
Nick Mancabelli, a CofC senior with workload-induced stress issues has struggled even more since classes went online. He finds his attention waning during class, leaving him less prepared for exams and papers, re-igniting his anxiety. Though he doesn’t blame the school, he feels at sea and is trying his best to cope on his own.
“It’s not a great time to be a student,” he said.
It’s a tough time to be a faculty member and administrator too, with the complexities of the Covid response piled atop the normal university functions. College of Charleston’s extensive Back on the Bricks plan for returning to school has kept Covid cases low and continued to provide student and health services in-person and online.
Ocampo, the Trinity College provost, believes that higher education must continue investing in the mental health of their students, particularly minority students and others who feel displaced. Referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which posits that humans must satisfy their psychological, safety, and social needs before they can address higher needs like self-actualization and transcendence, she notes that students in higher education can’t learn unless their mental health issues are adequately addressed.