By Sean Leonard
The mental health of college students has been significantly impacted as one year of remote learning approaches. A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 71% of respondents have experienced new stress or anxiety during the pandemic, and students at the College have also felt the burden of staying isolated from their campus community.
According to the CDC, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a disproportionate amount of mental health conditions among young adults, including but not limited to thoughts of suicide, depression, anxiety, trauma and substance use.
Despite the ongoing health and social crisis, Dr. Mark Forest, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs for Health and Wellness and the director of Mental Health Services (MHS), said that since their services have transitioned to a remote format, there has been an overall decrease in requests for services.
“I would say it’s in the 40 to 50% reduction in requests, which is pretty significant actually because ever since I’ve been at TCNJ, which is 2014, we’ve pretty consistently seen an increase in demand for service from year to year,” Forest said.
Forest said this reduction is not surprising because there have been reductions on a national scale.
“I think when there’s something sort of major, like an international pandemic, people get pretty preoccupied with sort of day-to-day kind of activities, navigating the pandemic, adjusting to online classes and that kind of thing. And unfortunately, sometimes mental health takes a lower priority.”
Fortunately, many students have been looking to their friends and family members for support, and there has been more demand for MHS this semester compared to fall, according to Forest.
“In part they’re a little more familiar and acclimating to kind of living at home or wherever they’re living doing remote classes….Students are venturing back out and recognizing that their stressors and feelings of depression (and) isolation have been kind of wearing on them and that maybe it’s time that they reach out and get some support,” Forest said.
With MHS operating online, a large obstacle among students and staff is preserving privacy along with a sense of comfort. Many students have siblings at home, which makes it difficult to find a personal space to receive treatment.
“I know that I had a staff member who didn’t have a separate office at home so quickly converted a closet, believe it or not, into a workspace,” Forest said. “So we were just doing whatever we could to provide the same level of services to students that we had been.”
MHS offers a wide variety of options. Students can evaluate their wellbeing and pursue the service that best fits their needs. For students who do not want the commitment associated with an individual, group or the Community Counseling Collaborative, Forest said the Let’s Talk program is a great informal option.
Let’s Talk provides easy access to brief, confidential, nonclinical conversations with mental health professionals from the College. Let’s Talk is not a substitute for ongoing therapy, but clinicians will be able to listen and offer support, explore options and suggest therapy resources and referrals.
“When you feel the need to touch base with someone, get a little feedback, ask a couple of questions, get some referrals or some support, it’s a great avenue for them to be able to do that without going through the formal kind of intake and having a little bit more of a commitment that the other kinds of offerings have,” Forest said. “We try to always look at what are the needs of students and who we are reaching. And probably more importantly, who are we not reaching? And then we try to develop a service that can reach those individuals.”
Robert Mitten is a sophomore psychology major who leads the Collegiate Recovery Community’s All Recovery Meetings, which take place Sunday nights. Mitten said the group supports those recovering from mental illness and addiction and also welcomes allies of people recovering.
Mitten said he and his friends feel they are not learning as much during the remote semesters, and most of his classes feel like busy work instead of genuine education. He also said developing strong relationships with his professors has been difficult.
“It’s tough; they don’t have a phone in their office. All you can do is email them, and hopefully, they respond quickly. At least in person, you can just show up unannounced in their office and hope they help,” Mitten said. “It’s going to be tough when I’m looking for internships and faculty sponsorships. It’s going to be more difficult during the pandemic than before.”
In order to prevent burnout and maintain his mental health, Mitten says he takes plenty of breaks by either browsing social media, spending time with his girlfriend or hanging out with his housemates. Mitten said he tries to keep in touch with other friends who are living at home.
“We FaceTime regularly. Some friends are more careful with the pandemic than others,” Mitten said. “So as much as I want to see the friends that aren’t careful, I have to protect me and my family. It’s still nice to see friends every once in a while in a safe manner.”
Mitten started his schooling at the College in 2017, and he said he remembers how some of his friends complained about Counseling and Prevention Services (CAPS). He said his friends had trouble seeing the same therapist for more than one semester and also complained about subpar treatment.
However, Mitten said his personal experience with MHS and CAPS has been positive, and he has seen a recovery specialist before and during the pandemic.
“He’s been really helping…I would tell students to utilize CAPS. I know in the past, you’ve heard bad things about it, but from my experience and my friends’ experiences, it was really good,” Mitten said.