After five months of being home, Danielle Cahue was looking forward to returning to campus — that is, until she got there. When the 19-year-old sophomore arrived at Illinois State University, she saw her peers gathering in large groups without masks, disregarding the university’s COVID-19 guidelines.
There have been more than 400 positive cases of COVID-19 at Illinois State as of Friday. The pandemic has stressed her mental health, especially when she sees her classmates acting carelessly about safety and social distancing, Cahue said. She tries to leave her on-campus apartment as little as possible, even delaying buying groceries until she has almost no food left.
“This is the most anxious I’ve ever been, I think, in my entire life,” Cahue told NBC News. “It has made it a lot worse and made me kind of worried just to do anything.”
More than half of 50,307 college students who participated in the American College Health Association’s Spring 2020 National College Health Assessment reported receiving mental health services from their current campus health or counseling center in the last year. Those numbers are expected to dramatically increase as students return to college this fall, experts predict.
“Many experts believe there’s going to be a second curve, which is the mental health impact of COVID,” said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Active Minds, a group geared toward bringing mental health awareness and education to young adults. “And schools have a responsibility to be responsive to their students’ mental health.”
Preliminary data shows the pandemic has already negatively affected people’s mental health, particularly college students, according to Catherine Grus, the American Psychological Association’s chief education officer.
“They’re seeing higher levels of depression, they’re having financial insecurity, which is also leading to mental health problems,” she said. “And this is concerning because, before the pandemic, we knew that college students were increasingly having mental health concerns. So, now you add the pandemic and we have a population that’s particularly in greater need for mental health services.”
In a survey conducted by Active Minds in April, 91 percent of the 2,086 college students surveyed reported that COVID-19 had added greater “stress and anxiety” to their lives, while 81 percent reported the pandemic caused them “disappointment and sadness.”
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Maryorie Delgado, a senior at Brigham Young University, said the pandemic is intensifying her responsibilities at home and at school. The 23-year-old, whose family immigrated from Peru, helps her father manage their used car dealership in Orem, Utah, while attending school full-time.
“So a lot of just the stress from my family falls on me because basically I am the oldest and I speak the language and my parents helped me out with my tuition. And so, I feel like I owe them a lot and then they feel like I need to help them a lot,” Delgado said. “The load of that plus, honestly, going to school, everything shutting down, it’s just like so much stress.”
With the transition to remote learning and most students leaving campuses in the spring, schools turned to telehealth to continue providing students with counseling services, support groups and even creating task forces dedicated to mental health.
But some students, like Michigan State University student Devonté Henderson, said it wasn’t an ideal situation.
“I will tell you it’s very challenging to schedule a therapy session through Zoom,” Henderson said. “I would much prefer just to see my therapist in person, so that is a big concern of mine.”
Michigan State University, which recently announced that it would conduct its fall semester remotely, said 814 students asked for mental health services this summer as compared to 616 students in the summer of 2019 — a 32 percent increase. The uptick has been attributed in part to expanded telehealth services, as well as stress and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, a university spokesperson said.
Macy Faust, a junior at the University of North Texas who is part of the school’s Active Minds chapter, said she and her friends held weekly check-ins over Zoom during the spring semester to solve things like turning in assignments or how to access the school’s counseling center, and to generally provide support for each other. They invited other UNT students to join, and Faust said they plan to continue the check-in sessions heading into the fall.
“If you have access, therapy is an amazing tool just to kind of talk out what you’re feeling and to expand on your coping skills, but also participate in peer support groups,” she said.
Some schools, like Howard University, are also working to address the fact that the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black Americans and people of color who have experienced higher mortality rates due to the coronavirus, as well as higher rates of unemployment.
Mike Barnes, director of the counseling center at Howard, said the school is working to educate students on issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as how to go to school in a virtual setting. They have also expanded their social media presence to send students encouraging messages over the last few months, most recently posting on Twitter, “Wishing all Bison a good first week. With every bump in the road that you experience…..there is support a call, email or DM away.”
“Many of our students have backgrounds that are fraught with frustrations and challenges and so forth. And so getting to Howard is, sometimes, a haven away from home,” Barnes said. “And so we’ve had to deal with students who have gone back home during the spring and obviously the summer, and live in what we’ve called a toxic environment or, not such a pleasant situation.”
Some students are feeling anxious and unsure about the fall semester as coronavirus outbreaks have already forced some schools to send students home and switch to fully remote instruction.
North Carolina State on Thursday asked students to move out of dorms, following the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which also canceled in-person instruction for the fall semester after it saw its positivity rate jump from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent within its first week.
Other colleges like the University of Notre Dame insist that students can safely return to campus, despite continued COVID-19 cases, which is causing some students, like sophomore Hailey Abrams, to worry about her exposure to the virus.
“There’s a huge range of possibilities of how this disease can affect people and knowing that it spreads so quickly within close proximity, it’s a little nerve-wracking to be on a college campus, in a dorm, with so many other people, with a disease that spreads so quickly like this,” she said.
Nonetheless, mental health professionals are urging students to remain hopeful and to take care of themselves as the semester begins.
“I know that there’s a ton of pain and tragedy associated with the pandemic and with the associated increased awareness and backlash around social inequity. What I want to try to get across to people is maintain hope. I have nothing but hope,” said Allen O’Barr, UNC’s counseling and psychological services director. “I think that the way to do that is to really focus on the brief moments of joy.”