College students deal with a range of positive and negative emotions. The excitement of learning new skills, meeting new friends, and exploring new opportunities. However, these emotions are often met with the realities of deadlines for papers, studying for exams, and contending with dreaded group projects. These realities can lead to a myriad of mental health issues.
Add a global pandemic to the mix, and you can understand why this year has been especially challenging for college students. Campus closures and stay home orders due to the global coronavirus pandemic has changed college student life as we know it. Student life has been altered in ways many of us could not have imagined, with classroom instruction moving online, dorms and other faculties closing, and sporting events cancelled.
According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five college students already struggle with mental health issues. The most common mental disorders among college students include: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and adjustment disorders.
Issues Directly Related To Campus Closures
Due to the coronavirus outbreak there has been an increase in these common mental health conditions. In particular, anxiety, depression and substance use have risen due to a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty. The collateral damage and unintended consequences — for many, but especially low income and first-generation college students — is not only the loss of their college experience but also their mental health. Here are some of the physical, mental, and social issues my social work students are dealing with.
The loss of adequate housing
In addition to the fun you see portrayed in popular culture, college dorms and student housing provide a level of safety and security for many college students. The closure of college dorms has brought the issue of student homelessness, as well as unsafe living conditions at home, into the spotlight.
“I missed three weeks of class because I was embarrassed to admit I was living in my car. I did not have a place to live or access to wifi.”
Some students, albeit not homeless, live in small spaces with several family members. The lack of privacy can make it difficult to study. Many of us, myself included, take for granted our basic necessity of living spaces that include enough privacy to focus on work. During a recent virtual class meeting some of my students pointed out that I am privileged enough to have a home office.
“This is easy for you Dr. Chapple; you have an office at home with a desk and an office chair. I am sitting on my bed and you have a whole separate place to work.”
Another student asked, “How are we supposed to log onto a Zoom session several times a week if we have no privacy?”
Loss of campus resources
A number of students eat all of their meals on campus, workout at the student fitness center, borrow books and study in the library, and use free computers and internet available on campus. Without these resources, students may experience a lack of normalcy and additional stress while searching for the place to get their next meal, exercise, or study.
Inability to escape the realities of home life
Sometimes just physically being on a college campus or school environment can be an escape from violence, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or responsibilities that include caring for younger siblings or ailing family members. A gay college student left home because her parents did not accept her.
I was living on my own and independent until the school closed and I lost my two part-time jobs. I found myself nearly homeless, without food, a computer, or internet access. After three weeks, I had to move back home — to a place I said I would never return to unless I was about to die.
Ways to Support College Students
It is important for professors, parents, and classmates to recognize the warning signs of mental health issues so they can help a student get the help they need.
Professors should remain vigilant when working with students, try to have patience and be empathic to students’ experiences. Professors should be flexible with assignment due dates, requirements, and record online lectures for students who cannot attend live lectures or are uncomfortable logging in their current living situation. Additionally, make class materials and other resources available (e.g., scanned book chapters; keep a record of free or low-cost resources such as textbook, apps, or online study materials; and keep a repository of available local social support services).
Parents who are adjusting to their students return home should try to display patience and understanding. Remember, in a relatively short time students have lost their sense of normalcy, including structured schedules, independence, and social connections. The majority of students need time to process and grieve.
The best thing you can do is empathize with your college student and allow them to express their feelings. Be aware of changes in mood, appetite, or behaviors — this may indicate that their mental health is suffering. If your student has a pre-existing mental health condition, discuss with them how you can help while they are away from their therapist or the university medical services they once relied on.
College students should also try to be patient with their classmates. Though some students are doing well, completing assignments and being productive, many others are having a difficult time simply focusing on schoolwork due to feelings of grief, loss of on campus jobs or internships, and the cancelation of graduation ceremonies and sports seasons.
Ultimately, coronavirus has changed the way we grieve and how we experience loss. It’s not only the loss of lives, but experiences, normalcy, and routine. If you’re a college student, know you’re not in this alone and it’s OK to feel upset or sad. Know that there are convenient resources like online therapy available from the safety of your device. If you’re a parent or the professor of college students, empathize and check in with them, they may need a little extra support — as all of us do — during the coronavirus pandemic.