As the spring semester gets underway on campuses across the region, college mental health staff say they’re inundated with students seeking care — a sign that, though classes remain largely in person, the stressors caused by the pandemic over the past two years are far from gone.
In recent months, many institutions have redoubled their efforts to meet the increased needs of students even as they’ve begun to shift their strategy away from a singular focus on therapy and toward an effort to help students form friendships and to foster a warmer, closer-knit, and more supportive campus culture.
“We know we can’t counsel or therapy our way out,” said Barbara McCall, executive director of Middlebury College’s Center for Health and Wellness.
The return to more in-person learning this year has given students more opportunities to connect, but that can cause anxiety for many students whose social skills atrophied while they were learning remotely at the end of high school or in college.
The rapid spread of the Omicron variant this year, along with relaxed isolation protocols at many schools, has also contributed to the stress. Dartmouth College, for example, recently reported 1,039 new cases in the past seven days among undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. Northeastern University recently announced that infected students are now required to isolate at home, potentially creating a stressful situation for roommates.
Each wave of changing protocols and worries feels like a new layer of stress, students said.
“It’s the stress that is that blanket factor, that just dims the whole experience for me,” said Allison Buckenmaier, 23, a fifth-year student in her final semester at Northeastern, where she is studying industrial engineering.
Some institutions have faced unthinkable tragedies during the pandemic. Last academic year, three first-year students at Dartmouth College died by suicide. This year, at least five have died from suicide at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
But those losses are in many ways just the most visible examples of the struggles faced by a much larger group of students.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected on a rolling basis throughout the pandemic have consistently shown that people between the ages of 18 and 29 have reported the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any age group, with between 30 and 50 percent reporting one or both.
Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy in December raised concerns about the mental health of young people in a stark report that called for action, saying “the challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.”
If there is a silver lining to these two years of tragedy and trauma, it is that the pandemic has forced a topic that was once taboo among campus administrators to the top of their priority list. Students have been struggling increasingly with mental health for years and have long pushed for better services, but many institutions have been slow to respond.
“There is a recognition of how challenging it can be to be a student when your mental health is struggling,” said Amy Gatto, who studies the mental health services of colleges across the country for Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that promotes mental health.
Beyond simply increasing their therapy offerings, which many institutions have done in large part thanks to the proliferation of telehealth, many have also begun to focus their efforts on helping students confront the root cause of their stress, connecting them to tutoring, financial aid, or oftentimes, simply to one another.
Middlebury has introduced a program called Project Connect, a student-led program to help people meet others outside their social circle. The conversations help students build relationships and a network of support that ultimately is good for their mental health.
At Boston University, mental health staff have also tried creative ways to help students bond with one another, including kits distributed to students with two coffee shop gift cards and a conversation-starter question.
“There is such value with just connecting as a community and interacting with each other... that bring us back to the fundamentals of sitting across from someone,” said Carrie Landa, executive director of student wellbeing at BU. Landa, a psychologist who long served as the director of behavioral medicine at BU, is transitioning into this new role, which she designed as a way to focus on the less-clinical approach to mental health.
Yes, she said, many people struggle with mental illnesses and need counseling or medication, “but a lot of the ways in which students struggle can be better addressed by community and engaging with each other,” she said. Her team recently set up a pop-up booth on campus called “Disconnect to Connect,” where students are encouraged to put their phones away and answer silly questions like, for example, what kind of animal they’d like to be.
Buckenmaier, the Northeastern student, is fortunate to have enjoyed a few years of college before the pandemic. She once loved to attend office hours because she learned the most from listening to other students’ questions and the professor’s responses. Online office hours haven’t been nearly as helpful.
She, like many students, said the pandemic made her hate school.
During finals week, her mind was a whirl of angry questions: Why do finals even exist? Why do they count for so much of your grade? Why were her classes so demanding, even as the pandemic raged? Who cares what grade I get, she thought, as long as I pass.
She’s put aside any thought of going on to graduate school.
“My brain is so fried. I feel so burnt out to the most extent I’ve ever felt in my life,” she said.
Buckenmaier, who is from Milford, said the mental health services offered by Northeastern are helpful and easy to navigate. But ultimately they treat the symptoms, not the cause, of students’ stress, she said.
Other students echoed her comments, saying the high cost of housing, a lack of gym access during the pandemic, and other factors have contributed to their mental health issues.
Experts who study college mental health services said they are heartened to see the new types of services and creative approaches colleges are taking during the pandemic and they hope they remain in place.
Gatto has noticed some of the most successful colleges focus on supporting the basic needs of students, including food, housing, and financial stability, clearing the way for them to focus on their studies.
Colleges are also working harder to make sure that students are included in conversations about how best to support student mental health.
If nothing else, she said, the pandemic has given administrators a new level of understanding of what students are going through. Some professors have begun to put mental health resources in their syllabi. One college put a QR code on student IDs that links to mental health resources.
Stephanie J. Kendall, director of the Counseling, Health, & Wellness Center at Suffolk University, said that in addition to the basics and a sense of belonging, students also need a sense of hope right now.
“Hope is the belief that we will get through this,” she said.
Professors have also found themselves in a uniquely difficult place over the past two years, as they have been expected to meet the needs of their struggling students even as they grapple with their own mental health.
Anne Mattina, a communications professor at Stonehill College, said last fall was the most difficult semester in her 35 years of teaching because everyone was so burnt out. The college has made many mental health resources available to students, but professors often feel overlooked, she said, and morale is low.
Professors have to walk a line between holding students responsible and also recognizing that this is a traumatic time for everyone, she said.
What has helped, she discovered, is being vulnerable in the classroom with her students; admitting that she’s not OK, either, and that she understands their sense of disappointment and loss.
“We can’t go back to the way things were, acting as if student mental health was somehow outside of the classroom, that they could leave it at the classroom door. That’s just neglectful,” she said.