People handed flowers to strangers on campus this week and wrote encouraging notes in chalk. Students played with baby goats and tail-wagging dogs brought in to comfort them. Classes were canceled Tuesday, pop-up counseling centers appeared in dorms and concerned parents brought cookies and hugs to campus.
The reasons behind any suicide are complex, and little is publicly known about these deaths. But the response on the Chapel Hill campus has been immediate and intense. And it has resonated nationally, coming at a time when many young people are feeling particularly burdened.
College students nationwide are more stressed — with the coronavirus pandemic adding loneliness, worry about illness, economic distress, relentless uncertainty and churn to a time of life that is already challenging for many. Demand for mental health services had already been high, but a recent study of college students found increased levels of anxiety and isolation during the pandemic.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 10 percent of adults surveyed in June 2020 had seriously considered suicide within the past month. Two years earlier, the share stood at about 4 percent. The issue is particularly acute for young adults. Among 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed in 2020, the CDC said, about 25 percent had seriously considered suicide.
“It’s heartbreaking to see students struggling so much,” said Kendra Randle, 20, a junior at UNC studying neuroscience and psychology.
“A lot of people have been rallying for the university to do more for the mental health of students,” said Lilly Behbehani, 19, a journalism student at UNC.
Those calls — for time, for space, for help, for someone to talk to — echoed concerns on campuses across the country as students navigate the pandemic and its impact on their lives.
“If you asked the students, you knew there was fear and distress when they got here,” said Andrea Pino-Silva, a graduate student and teaching assistant, who spent the past couple of days talking with students. “It’s not isolated to UNC.”
College officials nationally are responding with efforts to increase and rethink emotional supports.
Campuses are a microcosm of the larger societal problem of worsening mental health during the pandemic, said Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of the department of psychiatry at UNC, who will be leading a university summit on mental health this month. “The needs are massive.”
“This is happening in other places,” she said. “This is the trauma and the mental health tsunami, the fourth wave to come — it is here.”
Mental health has historically been underfunded nationally, Meltzer-Brody said, “and the data is very clear that our kids and adolescents are struggling.” That will require more money and more commitment to reach students in a variety of ways, to create connections to combat the pervasive isolation of the pandemic.
Schools across the country have taken steps to address the need, from Virginia State University and others adding days set aside for students to decompress, to Dartmouth College, one of hundreds of schools partnering with a suicide prevention nonprofit to study its mental health policies and plan changes.
“What we’re seeing across the board is more demand for increased resources for mental health,” said Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on emotional health and suicide prevention among teens and young adults. There’s also exhaustion, she said, from professionals struggling to meet the need.
“It’s been all-encompassing — the pandemic, the return to school,” pivoting from in person to online back to in person and trying to transition one’s mind-set, she said. “There’s still quite a lot of uncertainty and trauma and grief that people are experiencing collectively.”
Federal officials say schools are obligated under civil rights law to address the needs of students with mental health disabilities. On Wednesday, the Education Department sent educators a letter urging steps to prevent students from harming themselves. Suicide is a perennial concern on campuses. Now officials say the pandemic has cast a new spotlight on the stress and fear students endure.
“This year, attention to suicide and mental health carries heightened importance,” Suzanne B. Goldberg, acting assistant education secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letter. “The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a profound toll across the nation, including on the mental health of many students throughout the United States.”
Without doubt, students have suffered. They were shut out of campuses abruptly in March 2020. Then they endured long stretches of isolation during the last school year, whether they took remote classes from home or lived on or near campus under tight public health restrictions. And this fall is hardly back to normal.
The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University reviewed data on 43,000 college students who sought treatment in fall 2020 at 137 counseling centers. Of them, 72 percent reported that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health. Sixty-eight percent said it had hurt their motivation or focus, and 67 percent said it led to feelings of loneliness or isolation.
The data did not show any significant uptick in suicidal ideation in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. But it did show increases in stress, social isolation and general anxiety. “These data indicate that colleges and universities should be preparing to specifically support the mental health needs of students during COVID-19, especially in the areas of academic distress, family, eating concerns, trauma, and anxiety, among others,” the center reported in February.
Colleges have been responding in a variety of ways.
At many colleges, the pandemic accelerated a trend toward providing counseling online. That continued even after campuses reopened. “Most of our service right now is still telehealth,” said Jennifer Hung, assistant director of counseling and psychological services for the University of California at Riverside.
Now, Hung said, the university is seeking to help students through a new challenge: reentry anxiety. Coming back to campus isn’t as easy as it might seem. “How do we navigate this new normal?” Hung said. Some students need help plugging back in. “We really tailor our workshops to managing stress, managing this transition.”
In May, Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon and other leaders announced a memorial service for four undergraduate students who had died that academic year, and the launch of a four-year partnership with JED to promote “support for emotional well-being and prevention of suicide and serious substance misuse … as a campuswide responsibility.”
Virginia State University halted classes and other academic activities on Sept. 28 for a wellness day that included massages and yoga sessions. The public university in Petersburg, with about 4,300 students this fall, encouraged everyone on campus to focus on their physical and emotional well-being amid the stress of the pandemic. University Provost Donald Palm said the school wanted to send a message: “Let’s take a timeout and reset. It’s an opportunity for self-reflection, checking on a neighbor, checking on a peer.”
Saint Louis University canceled classes for a day last month after two students died by suicide within days. University leaders urged students to take a walk, eat ice cream or join them in prayer. A student petition asking for changes to university counseling had more than 9,000 digital signatures.
Riba, from JED, said wellness days are most helpful when they’re backed by additional efforts, such as an examination of where there are gaps in mental health care and what could be improved. Colleges can help combat the loneliness of the pandemic and aid struggling students by teaching many people, including faculty, peers and staff, how to reach out, she said.
“Sometimes it’s just being there for someone, checking in, asking if they’re okay,” Riba said. “There’s a lot of power in that.”
Kelsey Pacetti, a senior at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater studying social work, said people are happy to be back on campus this fall but “it’s really, really overwhelming” after spending the past year trying to figure out how to learn from home, and now adjusting back. The workload seems heavier than usual, she said. “We’re all trying to catch up.”
As the leader of her school’s chapter of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting mental health for young adults, she helped bring a national exhibit called “Send Silence Packing” to her campus this fall.
People wander through, looking at more than 1,000 backpacks — intended to convey the pervasiveness of suicide among youths and young adults. Each one has its own story.
“It’s a really powerful event,” Pacetti said. “It hits you in the gut, but in a good way.”
Reading those stories about loved ones lost to suicide is hard, Pacetti said, but they left her with the message that no one is alone — and that it’s important to watch for signs that someone is struggling.
Jodi Caldwell, executive director for the counseling centers at Georgia Southern University, said she had just left a conference of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, where much of the talk was about pandemic stresses. “Across the country we’re seeing increased demands for mental health services on college campuses,” and increased risk and severity of distress among those students seeking help, she said. “
Despite recent increased funding, she said the need continues to outpace clinicians available, not only on campus but also in the surrounding community. In Statesboro, home of the main campus, all the community providers either have wait lists or are so full they’re not adding to wait lists.
Katherine Pritchard, 21, a junior at UNC, said it was terrifying to come back to campus this semester. She’s immunocompromised, so the classrooms seemed dangerous with the delta variant of the virus ripping through the South. And the resumption of campus life felt jarring.
“The first day that we were back, I walked to another quad to get to class and had a panic attack in the middle of it — there were so many people,” she said. After spending much of the last year and a half in her apartment, she said, “now I’m just supposed to be here and pretend that everything is okay?”
Pritchard first heard about the death last weekend from a friend telling her she didn’t want to be alone. Like some other students on campus, she described hearing rumors over the weekend, piecing through the campus police logs to try to find out what had happened, and wishing university officials would say something.
Student leaders pleaded for time off.
The university, which has about 30,000 students, canceled classes Tuesday for a “wellness day.” UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz wrote in a letter that experts from counseling and psychological services, the psychiatry department and the schools of medicine and social work would be available in dorms and at other locations around campus to help students.
“While recent events on campus this semester brought this mental health crisis and its impacts into sharp focus, please know that we are committed to providing sustainable support for our community beyond one day or week,” he wrote.
Pritchard said she worried that some of the school’s messaging also advised students to talk to the resident advisers in their dorms, but she said her friends who have those jobs told her, “ ‘We don’t know how to help, because we are also terrified.’
“Everyone is really sad and really scared,” she said.
A previous version of this story misquoted Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. She said, “This is the trauma and the mental health tsunami, the fourth wave to come — it is here.” The story has been corrected.