College Students and Mental Health Strain of COVID-19

By Cameron Breland

A near empty campus at the University of Mississippi at 4 P.M.

The fall semester is in full swing for most universities, or at least trying to be with various schools hosting online classes and limited in person lessons. A big factor is the ongoing pandemic right in the middle of the semester that sent students home for the longest spring break in history. With COVID-19, students are struggling to focus as the fear of contracting the virus is looming overhead, and numerous college students are feeling the strain of prolonged stress added to their academic curriculum.

Mental Health Challenges Students Face

According to Best Colleges, the top five most common struggles among college students are depression, anxiety, eating disorder, suicide, and addiction. Students feel immense pressure during the school year, and support from family, friends, and the university can make a huge difference. Over half of the students with mental illness drop out of college, and the number will only grow if awareness is not revamped with school resources. Almost a third of students are diagnosed with depression, but the realistic number could be much higher as many students do not seek treatment. Society’s stigma with mental health has not helped as mental issues were seen as signs of weakness causing individuals to believe it was their fault or they were struggling alone. The previous statement could not be any further from the truth about mental health issues. The pandemic is not helping the above statistics, and students across the nation have similar worries.

From March to May this year, the American College Health Association (ACHA) conducted a survey with over 18,000 students participating across fourteen different campuses. Sixty-five percent of students were extremely worried about how long the pandemic would last, and almost the same number of students were worried about contracting the virus. More than half the students also reported having a more difficult time accessing mental health care. From the survey, colleges can learn how to give support and make decisions based on student’s best interests. A challenge with universities is balancing the physical safety of everyone on campus with COVID and straining to keep in touch with every student. The constant worry can take a toll on college students, so universities understand that they need to act fast in providing students proper care.

A summary from the ACHA Survey.

How Colleges are Helping Students Now

Under normal circumstances, students have the resources of their respective university within reach, but a good number of students chose to stay home with online classes instead of going back to campus. The risk of mental health issues rise when students are not able to access the appropriate care, and most universities are still learning how to deal with the pandemic and student safety accordingly. Colleges have been scrambling to accommodate students with different challenges than previous semesters.

The number of students who need counseling continues to rise as accessibility to care goes down. Schools have been hosting activities for students to participate in on Zoom meetings, and other gatherings have been occurring following safety guidelines. Some criticize schools for opening up too early, and the concerns for safety are driving forces in each school’s decision to open back up partially with new guidelines. In-person classes are being held with safety precautions such as required masks, increased spacing, and limited students per class. By seeing other students in person, there are positive mental health effects as interactions with peers can build comradery during these difficult times.

The University of Mississippi has been counseling students virtually, but some laws require counselors only practice in-state. With many out of state students, the counseling center at Ole Miss has been referring students to local services. There is still strain on the center as it goes through unprecedented times. The counseling center is hosting weekly Zoom meetings where students can drop in to ask questions and discuss mental health. Activities are still occurring on campus with proper safety precautions so students can interact with their peers.

Awareness has also been raised by the university with the athletic program. The Ole Miss football team and athletic program partnered with the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation as game-day against the University of Alabama fell upon World Mental Health Day. Players and coaches were seen wearing green ribbon stickers and lapels as the foundation was discussed during the game. The gesture was great in offering support and showing students they are not alone in their struggles. World Mental Health Day posts were frequent throughout the week, and the awareness was seen on social media platforms. This is a great direction going forward in the recognition of mental health and being able to discuss one’s mental well-being with others.

These are the schools that participated in Mental Health Awareness Week 2020. Photo from Hilinski Foundation.

What’s Next for Students and Universities

From the surveys and news articles, numerous college students deal with mental health issues, and the pandemic is not helping students either. Student leaders across the U.S. are raising awareness on the counseling laws and calling for suspension of regulated caregiving during the pandemic. With counselors being bound to practice only in-state, out of state students are often being referred to local care or not receiving any guidance. There needs to be a lift on these practices, so all students can receive proper treatment for their well-being. Anxiety and other mental health struggles will be more common this year, and schools should have more access to reach students who are having difficulty adjusting to the constant changes.

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