There Was A College Mental Health Crisis Before COVID-19. Now It May Be Worse.

The pandemic is increasing anxiety and depression among young adults. Here's what can be done about it.

With very few colleges and universities across the United States fully reopened, learning is not as it used to be. COVID-19 has dramatically redefined education, and while college students are navigating through this “new normal,” it’s impacting their mental health.

Young people were already experiencing an uptick in mental health issues. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last year shows the suicide rate among those ages 10 to 24 increased 56% between 2007 and 2017. Rates of depression have also soared among young adults, leaving experts worried that this generation is at serious risk for chronic problems.

Now they’re also concerned that the stressors of the coronavirus pandemic are wreaking an even greater psychological toll on young people. In a CDC mental health survey of 18- to 24-year-olds in late June, 25.5% reported contemplating self-harm in the 30 days before completing the survey and 62.9% reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Many students are now forced to do virtual learning, which can be detrimental to their well-being if they live in a toxic home environment. Those from communities of color and low-income areas are experiencing additional challenges, including financial struggles and the need to work to support their family amid the economic downturn. College students are also undergoing the transition from adolescence and adult identity formation while facing a particularly uncertain future.

All of this compounded with the previous struggles is leading to a mental health crisis, said Jessica Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.

“College students have been experiencing high rates of stress and depression. Now, with the added stressors of the pandemic, more students are experiencing hopelessness and loneliness,” Gold said.

The shutting down of college campuses has also eliminated ― or, at least, made less accessible ― a social environment that can support and uplift students. They’re missing out on in-person relationships, counseling and mental health support services, sports and other extracurricular activities.

If you’re a college student struggling with your mental health at this time, understand that you are not alone. Your feelings are valid and you will get through this. Below are some expert-approved tips on how to cope right now (as well as some advice for others on how to help students in their lives).

Stay connected with your loved ones, even if it’s virtually.

Whether you are at home or staying on a social-distancing campus, do not isolate yourself. It can be easy to simply avoid social interaction and resort to solo activities during the pandemic, but you can still meet up with others in a safe way.

“There’s no reason to not socialize at this time,” Gold said. “Now there is just a new nuance of wearing masks and staying at least 6 feet apart when meeting with others. It definitely creates a barrier to a lot of activities unlike before, but there’s tons of creative ways to hang out like a socially distanced picnic or hike.”

Pair up with your roommate or form a pod of buddies for safer hangouts. Go for a walk at a local park, watch a movie or take a long drive just with them. Whatever you engage in, avoid crowded areas and locations where individuals are not wearing masks to limit your exposure to the coronavirus.

Social distancing guidelines are meant to encourage physical distancing only and place no limits on social connection otherwise, said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and creator of the famous Science of Well-Being course, which teaches people how to be happier.

“College students need to be more intentional about making sure that they get nutritious social connections — not just scrolling social media, but in-real-time conversations with friends and people they care about,” she said.

Use technology to your advantage. Whether calling your parents who miss you or a friend from overseas who is unable to return to campus, you’ll feel fulfilled by these conversations. Even a single joyous talk can spark light in what seems like a never-ending tunnel.

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Build a daily routine with self-care practices.

So some or all of your classes are virtual and you’re not able to engage in your usual extracurricular activities. Santos encouraged dealing with these changes by implementing them in a new routine.

“Having clear routines can cut down on the overwhelming choices we tend to face on a daily basis and can also lead to less uncertainty,” she said. “In an otherwise stressful time, it’s important to build up those routines, even if we have to make up arbitrary ones ourselves.”

What constitutes helpful structure can be different for everyone and that’s OK. Partake in whatever makes you feel more grounded and productive for the day. Maybe you benefit from having a planner full of schedules for the upcoming days, highlighting important dates and deadlines. Or perhaps you prefer to take it one day at a time, curating a daily agenda with a set of assignments, readings or whatever else you will tackle on that day. Having a schedule can also help reduce difficulty in focusing, which a lot of students may be experiencing with their increased time on social media.

“We’re all used to multitasking, especially when watching lectures or videos on our screens, but data suggests that doing so is cognitively exhausting and can impact our mood,” Santos said. “In fact, research shows that we feel better when we’re being mindful than we do when we’re mind-wandering to other tasks. Commit to single-tasking — put your phone far away if studying or watching lectures on a laptop, commit to a specific time period when you’re ‘at school’ versus doing other leisure activities or texting with friends.”

While a school-focused routine is incredibly useful, do not forget other healthy habits that are crucial to your mental health, Santos added.

“Exercise, nutrition and sleep are simple health habits that not only help us feel better mentally, but also optimize our learning,” she said.

Sometimes you may get so busy studying or engaging in activities for others that you forget to take care of yourself. Set aside time to do at least one thing that boosts your mood and makes you feel good. It could be as simple as taking a warm bath or trying a new TikTok dance, but make sure to give a little time to yourself each day.

Know what school-sanctioned mental health resources are available and how they can be reached.

It is OK to feel anxious, afraid, frustrated, angry or even helpless. But if you feel like you’re losing control of your emotions or resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms, it may be time to see a professional. Mental health clinicians are here for you and want to help you get better.

Gold recommended familiarizing yourself with your school’s mental health resources, so you can easily navigate them if and when you need help.

“For college students that have been seeing a psychiatrist, therapist or other licensed mental health professional and receiving medication, I would recommend getting connected to a mental health provider on or close to your college campus,” Gold said. “After high school, college students will generally make a transition to a provider near their campus, as campus mental health centers do not have the bandwidth for long-term care.”

If you are a freshman or starting the new school year away from your usual mental health care provider, look for a new one immediately to continue receiving care.

And “for college students that have never sought treatment but want to seek help, I would recommend engaging with a wellness resource, whether it is peer support or a text line” Gold said.

“Peer counseling and advising are really helpful, especially as those peer counselors may have once been in the student’s shoes and are able to guide them with that firsthand experience. Some colleges have student-made apps or hotlines, which are really good as well,” she added.

If you are not sure what peer support resources your college offers, get in touch with the student affairs office or a counselor to inquire further. A peer might then direct you to resources like the student health center or counseling office for professional care.

“If the student is unsure on how to navigate or needs immediate care, I would recommend directly going to the student health center or a campus mental health clinic,” Gold said. “Although waiting times are exorbitant or there may not even be walk-ins, you will get to understand what type of services they offer and where you can speak to a provider about your mental health.”

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If you are a parent or caregiver for a college student, listen to them and guide them to professional support when needed.

It’s crucial for college students to have the support of their loved ones, said Brittany A. Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor in Indiana.

“Many young adults have a hard time reaching out to their parents or older family members,” Johnson said. “Parents can reach out just to check in on how they are doing and offer affirmative support. It’s also helpful when parents share stories regarding how they also experienced similar stressors when they were the same age or stage in life.”

Start a conversation and provide a listening ear to understand what the student is going through. Slowly, they may open up as they become comfortable. Trust the process and avoid being obsessive, as students need space to navigate their own mental health.

These conversations are especially important so that you can see when someone’s mental health is at risk and guide them to care, Gold said. Some red flags might be withdrawal or lack of motivation, mood swings, and changes in daily habits or activities, like not grooming or avoiding things they once loved.

“It is necessary to know what the warning signs are, but also to de-stigmatize getting help for your mental health,” she said. “Show your student that their feelings are valid and that you support mental health care. It’s important for them to know that you are on their side to offer support for any care that will help them get better.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.


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