It's OK to Not Be OK: College Students Tackle Mental Health Challenges During the Pandemic

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David Atash worked as a wellness ambassador for the Foundation for California Community Colleges before transferring to University of Southern California earlier this year. (Courtesy of David Atash)

Last winter, Jada Ross had “40 reasons to wake up in the morning.” The college sophomore would wipe sleep from her eyes, knowing she could look forward to a discussion in her African and Caribbean Literatures class. She knew she could count on seeing her co-workers at the campus IT department where she worked or the energetic middle school students she mentored in an after-school program.

“I had struggled with mental health before the pandemic started,” Ross said. “So I literally had all of these systems set in place so I felt motivated to get up in the morning.”

Sometimes she was tired and it would take an extra push, like from her blue nose pitbull pawing her face, forcing her up for their morning walk. He lived with her as her emotional support animal.

But like most people, the tightly woven fabric of Ross’s days began fraying as the coronavirus pandemic burgeoned.

The virus put a halt to her jobs at both the middle school and the Mills College IT department. Ross said she felt too anxious about COVID-19 to continue her side job as a driver for DoorDash. Her beloved dog died in February and, on top of it all, she was going through a break up.

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“With COVID, it was like everything was amplified times ten,” Ross said.

She is not alone. College presents a host of new challenges for young people: demanding academics with steep competition, discovering new aspects of one’s identity and often living independently for the first time. There's been an uptick in mental health conditions like anxiety and depression in college students over the past several years, and the pandemic is adding yet another layer of challenge.

A recent survey of tens of thousands of students showed significant jumps in undergraduate and graduate students who screened positive for both depression and anxiety during the pandemic as compared to rates measured before the pandemic. While screening positively for these mental health conditions is not the same as actually having them, survey authors said the findings were “unprecedented.”

By mid-March, Ross said the dizzying line-up of challenges felt like too much.

“I cried for days,” Ross said. “I felt like I was at rock bottom, like my lowest point ever.”

Eventually, Ross approached one of the resident assistants in her dorm, asking them to take her to the hospital. She said she was admitted to the Fremont Hospital psychiatric unit, where she stayed for two weeks.

Elsewhere on the Mills College campus, junior Alondra Rios also faced tests of her resilience. After leaving campus to move back in with family in Los Angeles, she found it easier to slip into depression.

“One of the things that I've had to deal with has been learning to sit with my thoughts,” Rios said, who grappled with anxiety even before the pandemic.

At University of California, Riverside, junior Marissa Howdershelt, who uses they/them pronouns, felt similarly.

“About a month into it, I definitely started slipping into a depression,” they said. “Being removed from my campus community was a shock.”

Before the pandemic, Howdershelt would spend most of their days on campus, involved in student groups and serving on the Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council for the nonprofit Mental Health America.

After the pandemic shut down most college campuses, they found it much harder to suddenly spend their days on Zoom, at home, where they felt they could be their "most genuine self” in terms of gender identity and sexuality.

Campuses Respond

Leaders of counseling and psychological services at California’s colleges and universities say they are up against many hurdles, too. Getting the word out about services must now happen online for the most part. Some students who are able to access services nevertheless lack a private space where they can speak candidly with a counselor. It is harder to offer traditional one-on-one or group counseling to out-of-state students, as state licensing laws largely do not permit work across state lines.

Counselors are seeing a lot of the same challenges they typically see, like anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship stressors, only amplified, said Aviva Wilcox, assistant vice president of counseling, health and wellness at Mills College.

Many stressors go beyond the pandemic, she said.

“For example, our Black students on campus have been impacted by anti-Blackness long before there was increased national attention to anti-Blackness and the movement for Black lives. But there's an increased intensity,” Wilcox said.

In response, colleges and universities are trying to get creative.

University counseling staff are looking for new ways to inform students of resources available to them, including popping into zoom lectures to let students know about counseling and workshops, or asking professors to embed information about campus mental health services in their syllabi.

For in-state students who choose to access remote counseling, there have been some unexpected advantages.

“Before the pandemic, we saw a lot of disparity among students,” said Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health in young adults. “LGBTQ students, students of color are less likely to get the help that they need for mental health.”

She said much of this can be attributed to the fact that the field has struggled to innovate beyond in-person therapy, which can be intimidating to students who have never engaged in this before. Affordable and culturally sensitive mental health care can often be less available to Black students.

“Virtual therapy, I think, is an example of how we can get a little bit more innovative and meet students where they are and make it a little bit easier for them to try it without feeling like they have to commit right away,” Horne said.

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Lea Jarnagin, interim director for student wellness and basic needs initiatives for the California State University (CSU) system, said some CSUs are offering workshops that are specifically geared towards addressing the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Jarnagin says the CSUs have partnered with a few local public health departments in recent years around student mental health, and that “this pandemic has really provided an opportunity to expand those partnerships.” The hope is that university staff can facilitate a “warm hand off” between the university and community based organizations when the university cannot provide services students need.

Counseling staff are finding nontraditional ways to serve out-of-state students, too, since they cannot legally offer them ongoing individual or group therapy.

Barbara Thomas, senior director of counseling and psychological services at the University of San Francisco (USF), said her team has developed mental health workshops to help out-of-state students, of which there are roughly 1500 at her university.

“We’re not making these people a client,” she said, as someone would be considered if they were accessing therapy sessions.

This allows the team to provide offerings like “Mindful Monday” or “Anxiety Tool Box," to any students who are interested, regardless of their location. USF has tripled the number of such workshops this year.

Thomas said her staff has also expanded what she calls “consultation services,” in which they help recommend local counseling services for out-of-state students.

“If you were residing in Iowa, you could call us and we could help you determine, given your insurance, what are local resources,” she said.

Students Find Their Own Solutions

In recent months, Rios, now a senior at Mills, identified key practices to keep her afloat in a time characterized by change. She sought out on-campus therapy, committed to working out virtually with her soccer teammates each morning, and got comfortable with solo dance parties in her dorm room.

Before the pandemic, Alondra Rios (center, with ball) played soccer for Mills College. While she can no longer do that in person, she wakes up most mornings to work out with her teammates virtually.
Before the pandemic, Alondra Rios (center, with ball) played soccer for Mills College. While she can no longer do that in person, she wakes up most mornings to work out with her teammates virtually. (Courtesy of Alondra Rios)

Howdershelt, now a senior at UC Riverside, is getting engaged in the community beyond campus, helping to set up food donations in low-income neighborhoods. They also found solace in “cleansing” their social media accounts: unfollowing the people or groups that gave them anxiety and following others that focus on mental health and mindfulness.

When Ross returned to campus after being hospitalized, the pressure didn’t let up much. Her time away meant she had a backlog of school work. And housing became a huge stress — she spent time in on-campus emergency housing until advisors and mentors helped her set up a gofundme campaign to collect money for rent.

After the killing of George Floyd, she leapt into the movement for racial justice. “Obviously I want to be a part of that,” she said.

But it took a toll, too. “Just the weight of even participating in that really hit me,” she said.

To get back on her feet, she said, “I was just like, wow, I really have to tap into myself.”

She started with routine, hanging a whiteboard in her dorm room to help maintain her schedule. On it, she scrawls reminders: eat three times a day, practice gratitude, do your homework assignments. She plans socially distanced meet-ups with friends, she goes to therapy at school and she takes regular walks through Mills College’s leafy campus.

She’s also found alternative forms of activism, becoming a representative of the Black Student Collective where she advocates for more annual therapy sessions for BIPOC students (Mills students are currently offered eight individual therapy sessions a year).

“When I wake up in the morning, I set a routine for myself,” Ross said. “But if I get to a really low point, none of that gets done, you know?”

When this happens, Ross said, she’s learning to ask for help.

On particularly hard days, she has another reason to get up too: a new blue nose pitbull, licking her face, goading her for a walk. She’s named him Blue.

Jada Ross with her dog Blue. "He's just very attention seeking. And I need that sometimes," Ross said.
Jada Ross with her dog Blue. "He's just very attention seeking. And I need that sometimes," Ross said. (Courtesy of Jada Ross)

A Few More Ideas for How to Get Help

KQED spoke with many students across California, from a range of colleges and universities, to hear about how they are taking care of themselves. Luckily, even during a pandemic, a movement for racial justice and a turbulent election year, there are many ways to get help. Here are some of their approaches, in addition to tips we heard from mental health staff at universities, colleges and nonprofits that work with young adults.

Students can reach out to counseling services on campus to see what they are offering — there may be more and different options than previously available. On some campuses, faculty are playing a greater role than usual, and some students report chatting with their professors not only about their academics, but their wellbeing overall.

University of Southern California junior David Atash said it’s clear different things work for different people.

“You throw 30 things at the wall and the two things that stick could really help,” he said.

He said he meditates briefly each morning and goes on long walks near campus.

University of Southern California student David Atash says walking helps him manage his anxiety.
University of Southern California student David Atash says walking helps him manage his anxiety. (Courtesy of David Atash)

Amrita Bhasin, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, has started doing digital art and drawing on her iPad. If she wants to relax, she’s also found comfort in watching movies, which she said helps her avoid spending excessive time on social media.

“There’s a starting and ending time, versus if I go in TikTok, there's no ending point,” she said. “There is physically no ending point on social media.”

Occidental College junior Liz Frissell said she’s getting through by moving her laptop outside for some of her online classes and meetings. She schedules time to connect with friends online through Facetime, games, and Netflix parties, where watchers can synchronize media with friends and chat at the same time.

USF's Thomas says there is no one-size-fits-all approach to self care. In fact, really exploring what works for you can be overwhelming.

“I talk a lot about baby steps,” she said.

She advises students to add one change, then see how that works before trying another.

One unexpected outcome of the pandemic, said Active Minds' Horne, is resilience.

“Often when we talk about young adults I think we all worry about them,” Horne said. “We worry about how they're adapting to social media and these other large societal issues that are new for humans, much less for this generation.”

“But we do see tremendous resilience among students,” Horne continued. “One of the things that really surprised us in looking at our data from students and what they were experiencing during the pandemic is just how optimistic and hopeful they remain, despite all the challenges that we are all experiencing.”

Resources and Suggestions

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Here are some suggestions from mental health professionals and students:

  • Reach out to others, schedule connection time virtually or safely in person
  • Seek support from family or peers
  • Start or continue individual or group therapy virtually (here are some pointers if it’s hard to find private space where you live)
  • Explore resources from nonprofits that completely or partially focus on mental health in young adults: Active Minds, Mental Health America, The JED Foundation
  • Increase the amount you sleep
  • Adjust your diet, even slightly, towards healthier foods
  • Decrease substance use
  • Improve screen time
    • Give your social media a “cleanse” — how can you follow more positive accounts and unfollow ones that cause anxiety or depression?
    • Avoid scrolling and instead relax with something with a clear endpoint, like a movie.
  • Limit news consumption
  • Start a journal or continue journaling
  • Practice breathing exercises
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • Listen to music
  • Dance
  • Get out into green or outdoor spaces
  • Garden
  • Spend time with your pet/get a pet
  • Make art
  • Use technology to help you, such as apps like Stop, Breathe and Think