Pandemic causes colleges to revise and improve their mental health efforts | Culture

MEQUON, Wis. – With the pandemic dragging on, the series of setbacks that recently hit Lucas Regnier, a sophomore at Concordia University, Wisconsin, seemed oddly routine.

A wrestler and physical education major, he suffered a concussion and a sprained ACL. Then he and half his team contracted COVID-19, forcing him to self-isolate in the basement of his girlfriend’s parents’ house, disrupting his studies and precious training time with his friends. teammates.

“I’ve been out for eight weeks,” said Regnier, who suffers from anxiety and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and wore a sweat as he finally attended training in early February. “I struggled to stay mentally strong.”

His struggle — and his openness — are common now, both on this Lutheran campus of 3,100 students and in colleges across the country.

It’s hard to overstate how much the pandemic has short-circuited the college experience and affected student well-being. For those already burdened with the demands of social media and fears about how to succeed in the world, COVID has piled up.

Students have resisted changing academic schedules and mask protocols. They faced restrictions on free-form socialization that creates relationships and a sense of belonging. As one Concordia student put it, “I haven’t had a normal year of college that hasn’t been affected by COVID.”

Data from a 2021 Healthy Minds Network study showed that 34% of college respondents had anxiety disorders and 41% had depression — rates that have been rising in recent years. More broadly, nearly 73% of respondents in the American College Health Association’s Fall 2021 National College Health Assessment Survey reported moderate or severe psychological distress.

For years, students have campaigned for improved mental health services on campus, such as more counselors and easier access to them, and greater awareness and sensitivity, including asking teachers to list suicide prevention and other helplines on curricula. They were met with a lukewarm response from administrators who have traditionally viewed mental health as a private, not institutional matter.

It changes. COVID is opening a conversation that students are desperate to have.

There aren’t enough professionals to meet the growing demand, but it’s not just about the number of advisers. Students are asking for a toolkit and a change in culture. What they want is more discussion – and more attention to – a subject once treated as taboo.

“We should always talk about mental health. It’s one of the best things you can do to prevent suicide,” said Kelsey Pacetti, a social work graduate at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, a campus of 11,000 students in a small town between Madison and Milwaukee.

Pacetti, who has described herself as “a survivor of multiple suicide attempts,” is president of the campus chapter of Active Minds, which helps students advocate for change in mental health on campus, practices academics more flexible to email integration.

Nationally, the number of Active Minds chapters has more than doubled in the past six years to more than 600, including a presence in 130 high schools, said Becky Fein, director of training and education. ‘commitment. “The pandemic,” she said, “has spurred conversation and openness around mental health in ways we’ve never seen before.”

As a student at Dartmouth in 2020, Sanat Mohapatra launched a mental health peer support app, Unmasked, which kept students connected while the pandemic sent them home. It now has 12,000 users in 46 schools. The students post anonymously, sharing their experiences, from the medications they take – and the side effects – to the painful battles with social anxiety.

Recently, Mohapatra said, more than 75 daily messages the app receives are from students discussing “what should mental health look like on campus – what is the role of administration, what is the role of students?”

Pacetti’s Active Minds chapter, which has grown from less than a dozen members to 35 during the pandemic, provides valuable support.

“It’s a place where I don’t feel like the stigma exists and I can be myself and share what I feel,” she said. At a recent meeting, the students made valentines for themselves.

Yet Pacetti also wants institutional change; she wants mental health education to be mandatory. Why are there “so many random requirements, but why isn’t mental health one of them?” she says. “Everyone deserves the skills to make it through college, through life.”

This view — that talking about mental health prevents problems rather than creating them — reaches administrators, said Diana Cusumano, director of campus and wellness initiatives at the JED Foundation, which guides colleges in the establishment of supports for mental health and suicide prevention.

“One of the big changes we’ve seen is a huge focus on making sure students on campus have what they need for their mental health,” she said. “And the interest is coming from presidents and provosts.”

At Concordia, as in many of the 400 schools that have worked with JED, awareness has followed tragedy. Two students died by suicide, in the fall of 2017 and the summer of 2018, said Beth DeJongh, an associate professor of pharmaceutical practice who knew the two. She co-leads the JED campus team, which brings together students, faculty, and staff from across campus to review university operations, from leave policies (one was missing a formal one) to how it communicates with students.

“I needed something to pour my grief into,” DeJongh said. “I wanted to focus on prevention.

The students clearly wanted help; on-campus counseling use grew 23% from 2019 to 2020. Still, it could take weeks to see someone. It was even difficult to make an appointment, said Tracy Tuffey, who retired in December as chair of the psychology department but still serves as a life coach with the campus wellness team.

“We didn’t have an admission,” she said. There was also no receptionist. Because the counselors were in session, they did not respond to messages from students until the end of the day. Also, all the councilors were white, which is also a problem elsewhere. “Our students of color weren’t looking for the counseling center,” Tuffey said.

Since not all students need “comprehensive therapy,” as Tuffey put it, Concordia launched a pilot project in October to provide students with other support, hiring five life coaches. Three are black. All were trained by Daniel Upchurch, assistant professor of psychology at Louisiana Monroe University whose app, Positivity+, facilitates online coaching and counseling with a focus on providers from diverse backgrounds.

De’Shawn Ford, a junior psychology student and president of the Black Student Union, said the coaches have “broke down a mental health barrier when it comes to our black students.” Many, including himself, are now meeting with life coaches, he said.

The school has also hired two admissions and triage coordinators who assess what help a student needs. Now, when students contact them, they receive a response within 24 hours and urgent requests are handled even faster, said Rebecca Hasbani, one of the coordinators. The center has some evening hours. Recently, Hasbani said, a student expressing suicidal thoughts walked in at 5 p.m. “If we hadn’t been there, he might not have reached out,” she said.

Concordia’s efforts also include a quiet, subdued room, “Evelyn’s Place,” named after a beloved former employee, with massage chairs, weighted blankets, and a stress management and resilience lab tool ( SMART) which teaches breathing techniques. The mini versions, “Evelyn’s Corners”, are tucked away in the dorms and the pharmacy school.

Mass communications graduate Nora Rudzinski said the spaces are a sanctuary for students “who may not be suffering from crippling depression but who feel overwhelmed.” She’s going to “get out of my headspace,” she said. “It’s literally walking into this room and sitting on the floor.”

Students can do a lot to help themselves, said Jennifer Laxague, deputy director of LiveWell, the office of health and wellness on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. She supervises and trains students as peer coaches and health educators. Last February, his office piloted one-on-one peer wellness coaching sessions, first virtually and then, starting in September, in person.

Students book an appointment online with one of three coaches and state a goal for the session. Nikita Nerkar, a peer wellness coach and Phoenix senior majoring in psychology, said students are “often looking for a space to talk things through.”

Many feel the stress of deadlines and schoolwork, compounded by poor sleep and time management habits. Kaycie Opiyo, a peer and senior wellness coach from Vancouver, B.C. who specializes in biochemistry and public health-global health, reminds those who feel defeated about their strengths and that it’s “a common experience, and they are not alone”.

There is a counseling center on campus, but Laxague said universities “cannot provide long-term therapy for 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 students.” Nor should they: “A lot of what people call ‘mental health struggles’ are actually understanding this human experience and figuring out how to become an adult,” she said.

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