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“They basically had their lives ripped from under them”: Students grapple with mental health concerns amidst an unexpected academic year

Student organizations and CAPS try to find different ways to support students

In the first of a two-part series about how the pandemic has impacted mental health, CAPS and mental health advocacy leaders describe these effects at Brown. 

As colleges shut down across the country in March, many students saw their lives completely change without warning. Intensely packed days scrambling to classes around campus turned into days spent parked in front of computer screens while scattered around the globe.

Across the country, the disruption exacerbated mental health issues for a number of college students. According to student mental health advocacy groups at Brown and Counseling and Psychological Services, many Brown students have experienced this, too.

Karestan Koenen, Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that it was the sudden, unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of COVID-19 that has made the pandemic so impactful for college students’ mental health.

According to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 40.9 percent of Americans were struggling with at least one mental health issue related to the pandemic in late June. The numbers are even higher for college-aged students, with 74.9 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds reporting at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

College students “basically had their lives ripped from under them” said Koenen. “You're in the situation you are at college, and then suddenly you’re told to leave. So where you live, what you are doing every day, your connection with your friends, it's over almost overnight.” 

On top of this jarring upending of their lives, students then had to grapple with the challenges of returning home to different family situations or finding a place to relocate to, while also having to remain isolated from others, Koenen added.

Dr. Will Meek, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Brown, agreed with Koenen about the severity of the pandemic's mental implications for college students. Meek added that although the pandemic took a toll on the mental health of the population on average, the way the pandemic has impacted students’ mental health is “definitely a nuanced picture.” 

The impact on each student is tied to a number of different factors like the “level of risk for themselves or family members, resources and privileged identities, and international status,” Meek wrote in an email to The Herald.

Many students with chronic mental health issues before the pandemic “actually had a skillset that allows them to cope with this kind of disruption because they have been through isolation, being removed from community, or facing large existential issues before,” Meek wrote. 

When the pandemic forced them to return home, some students benefited from being close to their home communities, while for students who see Brown as “a refuge…, being away from (that refuge) is very challenging.”

After classes became remote in the spring, CAPS “actually had a drop in numbers for a few weeks as people moved home,” Meek wrote. But at the end of April, there was a “rebound,” and CAPS saw “the busiest summer in the history of the office.”

CAPS is seeing 21 percent fewer students this fall than last year, and is holding 14 percent fewer sessions. Meek attributes “much of this” decrease to the fact that first-year students are not yet on campus. 

Molly Lavin ’21, the vice-president Brown's chapter of Active Minds, a mental health awareness and education group at Brown, said one of the biggest concerns she has heard from students is isolation. Both students who are returning to campus and those who are not have expressed anxiety about this.

“People are feeling really lonely and disconnected,” Lavin said. “We have members who are living with their parents who haven’t interacted with someone their own age in months.”

Not interacting with peers in their age group is challenging for college students because they are in a phase of psychological development where they break away from their family and become part of their circle of peers, Koenen explained. This becomes even harder for students who are fully remote because they also have to deal with the feeling that they are missing out on being with their friends, she added.

“Even if you love your family, it’s just odd to be with your parents for 24 hours a day when you were spending 24 hours a day with people your own age,” Koenen added.

Lavin explained that many members of Active Minds were feeling exhaustion “from the news,” referring to the taxing effect that the events of 2020 are having on students. She added that it is hard to have conversations surrounding COVID-19 and other problems the world is facing because of the overwhelming weariness and anxiety that can come with talking about these topics.

“I don’t really want to talk about COVID and the pandemic and sometimes politics and how the world is in a really bad place when I am in an Active Minds meeting, because I am trying to practice self-care,” said Lavin.

The nature of online learning also makes it difficult to prioritize self-care since there is “pressure to be constantly working” as “there is no distinction from weekdays and weekends,” she added.

Jack Riccardo-Wood ’21, the president of Active Minds, said that during this time, Active Minds has been trying to offer support for students through weekly meetings and events like virtual wellness check-ins.

Still, Riccardo-Wood said that Active Minds’ transition to remote has not been easy, because it is difficult to hold conversations about mental health online.

Lavin added that advocating for and fostering conversations around mental health can be especially challenging since a lot of people might not have a private space where they can feel comfortable sharing certain details about their lives.

While recognizing that “most of us” are tired of virtual interactions, Koenen encouraged students to reach out and stay connected to friends.

Lavin agreed with Koenen and said that reaching out is extremely important, especially since a lot of people tend to isolate themselves when they have mental health issues.

“There can be a big tendency to isolate yourself when you start experiencing mental issues. ...Make sure to reach out … and check in with your friends even if you are not physically close,” Lavin said.

This is especially important for students who might not be surrounded by peers who would otherwise realize if they are exhibiting signs of mental health issues, Meek wrote. “When we don't have a roommate who notices changes, we can get further down the road with our mental health (than) we would otherwise,” he wrote. “If you notice anything going on for you that seems out of the ordinary, just get in touch even for one check in with us,” Meek wrote.

All current students, whether on campus or remote, can schedule an appointment with CAPS through their website. Students in urgent need of help can also call the number 401-863-3476, available 24/7 all year round, to reach CAPS.


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