Among colleges’ many fall worries: students’ mental health

Juliette Barry, 21, a rising senior at Boston University, said the energy and passion she traditionally gets from her classes and extracurricular activities have been sapped by the pandemic. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As colleges prepare elaborate plans for socially distanced classrooms and extra cleaning procedures this fall, their students have been stuck at home, already grappling with one major yet invisible effect of the pandemic — the toll on their mental health.

Ever since campuses abruptly cleared in March, students’ lives have been upended. In a matter of days, internships were postponed, summer programs canceled, job interviews paused indefinitely.

Instead, most students returned to their parents’ domain, sometimes a stressful environment, and many still don’t have a clear picture of what fall will look like. Freshmen will arrive on campuses where it will be harder to make connections with classmates. Seniors will face a solemn year and graduate into the worst job market since 2008.

“I’m so deflated,” said Juliette Barry, 21, a rising senior at Boston University. “I don’t have much passion or motivation.”

Barry said it’s been difficult to feel excited about going back to school this fall. The energy and passion she traditionally gets from her classes and extracurricular activities have been sapped by the pandemic.

She’ll occasionally break into tears during texts and video calls with her friends.

Barry, a film and advertising major, says she knows that people have lost their lives and loved ones to the pandemic and that many others are facing more challenging situations, but she is also trying to come to grips with anxieties about her future.

Studies conducted over the past few months have captured the widespread effect of the pandemic on college students’ well-being during a critical time in their adolescent development.

Eighty percent of students reported that COVID-19 has negatively affected their mental health, and one in five said their mental health significantly worsened, according to a survey by Active Minds, a national organization devoted to student mental health.

The pandemic has increased students’ stress and anxiety and left them feeling disappointed, sad, lonely, isolated, and financially set back, the survey found. Most students also reported that self care has become more difficult because their routines have been thrown off, and they struggle to get enough physical activity or connect with others.

Barry said her study-abroad plans for the summer were postponed until the fall and have since been canceled. Her job as a videographer for university athletic events also evaporated with the suspension of the Patriot League competition this fall. Her sorority social gatherings are likely to be mostly virtual when school starts. And she’s still not sure whether the classes she has looked forward to taking for the past three years will even be offered in-person this fall.

Being at home has added an extra barrier for certain students seeking services.

Mental health treatment is taboo in some households, so college campuses can be the only place a young person can access care. National conversations about racial justice this spring have also increased demand for services.

“My biggest fear from a mental health perspective is that inequality is going to widen, that we’re going to see fewer and fewer students of color who are able to access mental health services through their campuses,” said Sarah Lipson, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who studies college student mental health.

Lipson’s team surveyed students this spring about the pandemic and found that financial stress, a predictor of student mental health, was significantly affected by the pandemic.

The study also found that 60 percent of students said the pandemic made it more difficult to access mental health care. Meanwhile 41 percent of students reported that they witnessed race-based discrimination as a result of the pandemic.

Students also reported that their weakened mental health hurt their academic performance.

Lipson said the fact that the COVID-19 crisis comes during these students’ college years makes the toll particularly heavy.

“It’s meant to be the time for so many adolescents and young adults where they’re developing their autonomy and really coming into adulthood and really having more and more independence, and that has been cut off at this really pivotal time,” she said.

Mental health treatment is especially important during college years, she said, because it is often the age of onset for lifetime mental illness. The longer people go without treatment, the more difficult it can be.

But because many courses will be virtual and social activities curtailed this fall, there will be fewer adults such as coaches or RAs who might notice someone struggling. Professors will likely be the only ones who see students on a regular basis, albeit virtually.

One rising senior at Boston College from North Carolina described her devastation when her plans for summer and senior year fell apart.

She was in the second round of interviews for an internship in Washington, D.C., that she hoped would lead to a job after graduation. Instead, she found herself at home, trying to work as her younger brother slurped cereal and everyone crowded the WiFi.

“It felt like a regression back to high school,” said the student, who asked not to be named. “How much power do my parents have over me? What are the house rules?”

She still has little idea what the fall will look like or what her post-graduation job prospects might be like. She struggles with anxiety triggered by uncertainty and transitions.

“That’s exactly what COVID is,” she said.

The student said she hopes BC will add services this fall because the need will be huge.

“[The need for services] has always been there and it’ll just continue to increase, especially as the world continues to spiral out of control,” she said. “I wonder how they’ll keep up with that demand.”

Colleges, which even in normal times are known for having weeks-long wait lists to see a counselor, have begun to anticipate a greater need. Boston College has added more clinicians to its staff this year, said Craig Burns, director of University Counseling Services. The school has also added an online mental health awareness module for new students to complete before the fall semester, he said.

Northeastern University, which has faced shortages of mental health counselors in the past, last year implemented a new system officials believe will help even more during the pandemic. The service is a free phone number students can call from anywhere in the world that immediately connects them to a mental health clinician who can assess their needs.

After the initial call, the clinician helps the student connect with ongoing services wherever they are living.

“Our goal this year is to make sure more and more people use it, and more and more people know about it,” said Madeleine Estabrook, senior vice chancellor for student affairs at Northeastern.

On many campuses around Boston, students have also organized themselves to help each other access mental health services. Active Minds, a national organization, has chapters on most campuses in Boston.

Mary Moskowitz, a rising third-year at Northeastern, and vice president of that school’s Active Minds chapter, said she has seen more student groups than ever discussing mental health online in recent weeks.

“Everybody is having anxiety about the pandemic and their financial status and not seeing friends, and going back in the fall,” Moskowitz said. “Wrapped up in all those logistics is an incredible amount of anxiety.”

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