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Pandemic leads colleges to revise, improve mental health efforts

Covid distress made issues more urgent, but students began fighting for change even before the pandemic

Members of the Active Minds student organization at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater during a Valentine's Day activity on self-love, self-respect and self-affirmation on Feb. 9. (Craig Schreiner)
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MEQUON, Wis. — With the pandemic dragging on, the string of setbacks that recently hit Lucas Regnier, a sophomore at Concordia University Wisconsin, seemed oddly routine.

A wrestler and physical education major, he suffered a concussion and a sprained ACL. Then, he and half his team contracted covid-19, forcing him to isolate in the basement of his girlfriend’s parents’ home, disrupting his academics and prized training time with teammates.

“I have been out eight weeks,” said Regnier, who has anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and was sporting sweats as he finally attended practice in early February. “I have been struggling to keep mentally strong.”

His struggle — and openness — are common now, both on this 3,100-student Lutheran campus and at colleges across the country.

It is hard to overstate how much the pandemic has short-circuited the college experience and affected students’ well-being. To those already burdened by the demands of social media and fears about how to succeed in the world, covid piled on.

Students have weathered shifting academic schedules and mask protocols. They have faced restrictions on the free-form socializing that builds acquaintanceships and a sense of belonging. As one Concordia student put it, “I haven’t had a normal year of college that wasn’t impacted by covid.”

Data from a 2021 Healthy Minds Network Study showed 34 percent of college respondents had anxiety disorder and 41 percent had depression — rates that have risen in recent years. More broadly, nearly 73 percent in the Fall 2021 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment survey reported moderate or serious psychological distress.

For years, college students have agitated for improved campus mental health services, such as more counselors and easier access to them, along with greater awareness and sensitivity, including having professors put suicide prevention and other hotline numbers on syllabuses. They have been met with a tepid response from administrators who have traditionally considered mental health a private matter, not an institutional one.

That is changing. Covid is cracking open a conversation that students are desperate to have.

College students struggle with mental health as pandemic drags on

There are not enough professionals to meet rising demand, but this is about more than counselor numbers. Students are pressing for an array of tools and a culture shift. What they want is more discussion about — and more attention paid to — a subject once treated as taboo.

“We should always be talking about mental health. It is 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 city between Madison and Milwaukee.

Pacetti, who described herself as “a multiple suicide-attempt survivor,” is president of the campus chapter of Active Minds, which helps students advocate for change around campus mental health, from more flexible academic practices to integration of messaging.

Nationally, the number of Active Minds chapters has more than doubled over the past six years to more than 600, including a presence at 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 have not seen before.”

As a student at Dartmouth in 2020, Sanat Mohapatra launched a mental health peer support app, Unmasked, which kept students connected as the pandemic sent them home. It now has 12,000 users at 46 schools. Students post anonymously, sharing experiences from what medications they take — and the side effects — to painful battles with social anxiety.

Recently, Mohapatra said, more of the 75 daily posts the app gets are students discussing “what mental health should look like on campus — what is the administration’s role, what is the students’ role?”

Pacetti’s chapter of Active Minds, which grew from fewer than a dozen members to 35 during the pandemic, provides valuable support.

“It is a place where I don’t feel stigma exists and I can be myself and share how I am feeling,” she said. At a recent meeting, students made valentines for themselves.

Yet Pacetti also wants institutional change; she wants mental health education to be required. Why are there “so many random requirements, but why is mental health not one of those?” she said. “Everybody deserves the skills to get through college, through life.”

That view — that mental health talk prevents trouble rather than creating it — is reaching administrators, said Diana Cusumano, director of the JED Foundation’s campus and wellness initiatives, which guide colleges in building mental health and suicide prevention supports.

“One of the big changes we have seen is a huge interest in making sure students on campus have what they need for their mental health,” she said. “And the interest is coming from presidents and provosts.”

At Concordia, as for many of the 400 schools that have worked with JED, outreach followed tragedy. Two students died by suicide, in fall 2017 and summer 2018, said Beth DeJongh, an associate professor of pharmacy practice who knew both. She co-directs the JED campus team, which gathers students, faculty and staff from across campus to examine the university’s operations, from leave of absence policies (it lacked a formal one) to how it communicates with students.

“I needed something to pour my grief into,” DeJongh said. “I wanted to focus on prevention.”

Students clearly wanted help; use of campus counseling rose 23 percent from 2019 to 2020. Yet it could take weeks to see someone. It was hard even to make an appointment, said Tracy Tuffey, who retired in December as chair of the psychology department but still serves as a life coach with the campus’ wellness team.

Opinion: The fight for better mental health care on campus

“We had no intake,” she said. There was also no receptionist. Because counselors were in session, they did not respond to messages from students until the end of the day. In addition, all the counselors were White, which is also an issue elsewhere. “Our students of color were not seeking out the counseling center,” Tuffey said.

Given that not all students need “full-blown 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 the University of Louisiana Monroe whose app, Positivity+, facilitates online coaching and counseling 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 for mental health as it relates 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 expressing suicidal ideation had walked in at 5 p.m. “If we had not been there, he might not have reached out,” she said.

Concordia’s efforts also include a quiet, dimmed room, “Evelyn’s Place,” named for a beloved former employee, with massage chairs, weighted blankets and a Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART) lab tool that teaches breathing techniques. Mini versions, “Evelyn’s Corners,” are tucked into dorms and the school of pharmacy.

Return to campus sometimes comes with an unsettling sense of unreality

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 goes to “get out of my head space,” she said. “It is literally walking in that room and sitting on the floor.”

Students can do a lot to help themselves, said Jennifer Laxague, assistant director of LiveWell, the campus health and wellness office at the University of Washington in Seattle. She supervises and trains students as peer coaches and health educators. Last February, her office piloted one-on-one peer wellness coaching sessions, at first virtually, then, starting in September, in person.

Students make appointments online with one of three coaches and state a goal for the session. Nikita Nerkar, a peer wellness coach and senior from Phoenix majoring in psychology, said students often “are looking to have a space to talk things through.”

Many feel stress from 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 is majoring in biochemistry and public health-global health, reminds those feeling defeated of their strengths and that it is “a common experience, and they are not alone.”

There is a counseling center on campus, but Laxague said that universities “cannot provide long-term therapy for 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 students.” Nor should they: “A lot of what people are calling ‘mental health struggles’ are actually figuring out this human experience and figuring out how to be an adult,” she said.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Crisis Text Line — text HOME to 741741 — are free, 24-hour services that can provide support, information and resources.

This story about campus mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.