COVID-19 and student mental health: Where we are, how to do better

Mental Health Viewpoint
By Cecilia Orozco

Content warning: This article mentions suicide and mental health struggles.

A year ago, students were abruptly forced to depart campus as COVID-19 began to spread across our country. Little did we know we would be saying goodbye to college life as we knew it. The college experience has always been built on the foundation of community, and with COVID-19 restrictions severely limiting most forms of connection, the toll on our mental health has been steep.

Pre-pandemic, mental health struggles were prevalent among college students. Young adulthood is a mentally turbulent period; it is a time of transition that comes with new stressors and intrinsic biological risk that make mental health difficulties common. In a pre-pandemic survey, 65% of college students reported anxiety, 30% a mental health condition and 10% thoughts of suicide. For some time, young adulthood has been recognized as a common age of onset for numerous serious mental disorders.

The pandemic has exacerbated these already widespread mental health issues among college students. A CDC report on mental health during the pandemic found that in the 18–24 age group, 1 in 4 people had considered suicide in the past 30 days. In the fall 2020 exit survey conducted by TCU Senate, 73% of respondents rated their mental health as 5 or lower on a 10-point scale and over 80% stated that their mental health negatively impacted their motivation, academics, work and social lives. Social isolation was the second most cited issue impacting students’ learning and experience. The guidelines put in place to keep us safe are wholly necessary, and careless behavior is inexcusable. Yet when students are forced to choose between being safe and fulfilling their social needs, it’s easy to see why caution tends to get thrown to the wind. For first-years, this lack of community is especially pronounced.

These statistics are frightening, yet not surprising considering the cumulative stressors on college students over the last year. The pandemic has introduced a host of new risk factors that contribute to the development of mental health issues and crises. Prolonged exposure to stress increases risk for anxiety, depression, substance use problems, sleep disturbances and even physical pain and injury. Online classes entail an inherent risk; according to a study published in 2021, spending eight or more hours per day looking at screens correlates with increased psychological impact induced by the pandemic. Over all of this lingers a persistent feeling of uncertainty: Will we be sent home again? For many, particularly those without safe home environments to which they can return, the prospect of getting sent home proves not only disruptive but detrimental. 

The pandemic has stripped us of our typical coping strategies for stressful times. Student clubs that provide a break from rigorous academics have been limited in their activities or unable to meet, and spring break was, in large part, eliminated. Tufts students are dedicated to their academics, but so few chances for respite erode students’ capacity to remain focused and engaged.

Tufts has taken some measures to address the mental health issues brought about by the pandemic. Tufts Health and Wellness has encouraged student participation in an online mental health education program, Kognito, designed to educate students about how to support peers struggling with their mental health and direct them to resources. Notably, Tufts implemented exceptional pass/fail again this spring, which students said was crucial to supporting their mental health and academic success, according to the TCU fall exit survey. Additional resources offered by Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services, such as workshops and discussion groups, amount to important tools that teach coping skills and build a community around self-care

Despite this, the barriers to seeking help are insurmountable for many. Lack of trust in counseling services is one of the factors that deter college students from seeking help. Clearly, this is the case at Tufts; the majority of respondents to the TCU fall exit survey stated they do not believe CMHS meets their needs, and 60% rated the accessibility of CMHS as 5 or lower on a 10-point scale. This, along with the general stigma surrounding mental health issues, makes getting help incredibly challenging.

In order to address the lack of confidence in CMHS, Tufts must act in response to the needs students have clearly expressed. TCU reported that students specifically asked for “increased one-on-one time with professionals” and “increased diversity in CMHS’s staff.” Therefore, Tufts should allocate resources for CMHS to hire more clinicians in order to meet the need for long term, one-on-one counseling. To address the need for greater diversity, it is critical that CMHS hires more clinicians of color and LGBTQ clinicians. Once students take the initial step of reaching out for help, one that is daunting in and of itself, they must have uncompromised access to the care they need. 

To address mental health emergencies, the number of mental health professionals on call must be increased. Additionally, TUPD should be removed from all mental health crisis calls. Police officers are not equipped to deal with mental health emergencies and may even exacerbate these crises, especially for students of color. 

Because the barriers to care are so great, TCU Senate’s recommendation for CMHS to take a more proactive approach to student mental health and to publicize opportunities should be implemented. The Senate also recommended a weekly newsletter from CMHS, which could substantially augment the visibility of essential resources. Additionally, CMHS should leverage students’ passion for mental health care, and hire student ambassadors to promote opportunities to peers and bridge the gap between CMHS and the student body. 

Analogous to physical health checkups, Tufts should offer screenings for mental health symptoms and risk factors, and when necessary, the detection of such conditions should lead to a referral for care. Tufts should also mandate Kognito training for all students and faculty, so that everybody is equipped with strategies to recognize signs of mental health difficulties in themselves and others.

In addition to making CMHS more accessible, Tufts must address the effects of social isolation. Students should be offered more spaces and opportunities to safely spend time with friends. Tufts should adopt the Senate’s recommendations to make the JumboLife platform more user friendly and create new social media spaces to help students learn about events. Once the weather is warmer, Residential Life should facilitate socially distant, outdoor events; spending time outside is a great way to bolster mental health. 

Now more than ever, it is important to check in with your friends; it is a myth that asking about mental health issues or suicide will make things worse. To students who are struggling, know that you are not alone. As it gets warmer and case numbers continue on a downward trajectory, some problems may subside. Nevertheless, the pandemic has elucidated the urgent need to address students’ mental health. Students need a robust support system, now and always.


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