The stress and anxiety college students experience today can seem overwhelming. In addition to the typical concerns about adjusting to college life, dealing with newfound independence, building friendships, academic pressure and financial insecurity, students just entering college deal with a host of additional issues stemming from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, including social anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and isolation.
According to a survey released by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 94% of students reported that at least one area of their life was negatively impacted by COVID-19. The most common areas affected included mental health (72%), motivation or focus (68%), loneliness or isolation (67%), academics (66%), and missed experiences or opportunities (60%). The study analyzed data from 43,098 college students seeking treatment at 137 counseling centers during the fall of 2020. Students who sought services due to the pandemic reported slightly more depression, generalized anxiety and general distress, as well as significantly more academic distress.
Regardless of students’ reasons for seeking mental health services on campus, college counseling centers are busier than ever. In response to this surge in demand for services, which began even before the pandemic, many institutions are reexamining the ways in which they provide services, resources and support to students seeking their assistance.
At the University of Delaware, the Center for Counseling and Student Development (CCSD), part of the Division of Student Life, provides students with a wide variety of services to enhance their mental health care and well-being.
“The CCSD serves as the hub for mental health care services at the university, but it’s just one part of a larger grouping of health-oriented services that we offer to our students,” says Cynthia A. Diefenbeck, Psy.D., APRN, director of UD’s Center for Counseling and Student Development. “Our assistant vice president for well-being, Dr. Rae Chresfield, is creating a new structure that recognizes the need for integration of services, physical and mental, prevention and treatment, under a well-being portfolio that stitches together all of these services into a continuum of care.”
The Wellbeing Center encompasses UD’s counseling center, Student Wellness and Health Promotion and Student Health Services and provides students with a central location to address their health care needs. The counseling center offers individual and group therapy, career counseling, psychiatric care/medication management, crisis support and off-campus referral services. Students can also access mental health support 24/7 via the UD Helpline or Crisis Text Line.
“Our job is to look at our students comprehensively and be mindful of all the various supports across campus, connect them with the resources they need and provide them with a robust plan of care,” Diefenbeck says. The university also created the Campus Coalition for Wellbeing and Mental Health, a cross-disciplinary, cross-institution effort to identify and raise awareness for mental health, as well as integrate all of the practices focused on students’ well-being within the university. “It’s not just the counseling center’s responsibility to promote mental health awareness. It’s a university-wide effort,” she stresses.
One of the most effective ways to get students involved in advocating for their own mental health is through peer support groups. At college campuses nationwide, peer-led awareness groups like Active Minds, based in Washington, D.C., are helping to change the conversation about mental health and reduce the stigma that prevents students from reaching out for help. The nonprofit was founded in 2003 by Alison Malmon, then a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, after the suicide of her older brother.
“Research has shown that 67% of students will first tell a friend that they’re struggling with mental health issues,” says Marie Pasternak, senior manager of higher education at Active Minds. “Training students on how to respond when somebody says they may be feeling down or having a hard time with their mental health is crucial, as suicide remains the number two leading cause of death among young adults. We’re providing the tools and resources to help raise awareness about mental health on college campuses. The more we can educate people and get the conversation started about the need to take care of your mental health, the better chance we’ll have to reduce these statistics.”