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College students experience mental health decline from COVID-19 effects, survey finds. Here’s how to get help.

In a survey by Active Minds, 80% of the 2,086 respondents said that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health, and one in five students said that “their mental health has significantly worsened.”

A quiet morning at the Bell Tower on the Temple University campus last week.
A quiet morning at the Bell Tower on the Temple University campus last week.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

On Saturday, Brendan McNally will sit on the couch in his family’s living room, dressed in his cap and gown, and watch a slide with his picture and name go by on his computer screen during St. Joseph’s University’s online graduation ceremony — a far cry from the senior’s expectations before COVID-19 derailed everything.

“I thought I would get to close out senior year with my two best friends after our extended spring break,” said McNally, who is now quarantining with his family in Bethlehem, Pa. “And then things just got worse and worse, and I realized that we weren’t going to reopen. Everyone’s mental health was all over the place. It was like, ‘I put in all this effort, this is the reward we’re getting?’”

McNally is one of at least 14 million college students affected by the pandemic, according to an estimate by a Georgetown professor. In the Philadelphia area, students were asked to move out of their campus residences and take courses online on short notice. Many of them now owe rent for their empty off-campus apartments and worry about their job prospects as officials expect unemployment rates to reach 20%.

The mental health impact of the pandemic has been significant, said Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds Inc., a national nonprofit supporting mental health awareness and education for students. In a survey by the organization, 80% of the 2,086 respondents said the pandemic negatively affected their mental health, and one in five students said “their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19.”

Even more concerning: over half of students surveyed said they don’t know where to go if they need help, Horne said.

“They’re used to getting mental health support from a local therapist near where they lived on campus,” she said, or from their school’s counseling services. “If they really depended on that mental health treatment, there’s the added stress that comes with having to figure out how to have teletherapy in their homes with their families.”

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This is particularly worrying when data show that between 2007 and 2017, college students seeking mental health help increased from 19% to 34%, and students who receive a lifetime diagnosis increased from 22% to 36%.

“Students are struggling with many of the same challenges we are all facing as we stay home,” said Hider Shaaban, a doctoral extern in psychology at Temple University’s Tuttleman Counseling Services. “They also are dealing with some unique challenges that sometimes involve … issues related to independence — or lack thereof — as they navigate being back at home for an extended and unexpected period of time. Tensions seem high, conflicts are high, and there is a sense of isolation.”

Stacey Cahn, assistant director of integrated behavioral health at Rowan University’s Wellness Center, agreed, saying that for some college students, home life is not "like a Norman Rockwell painting.”

“Not every college student’s home is emotionally and physically safe,” she said. “Some may have a parent who was sick with coronavirus. Some have family members who are front-line health-care workers. And some may be dealing with a lot of financial stress at home, if their parents are unemployed.”

There’s also the issue of grief that many college students are now struggling with as their futures may no longer be secure, said Cahn.

“Students have experienced a lot of loss,” she said. “There’s grief for the summer that they thought they had, grief for their futures, which now look different and have a lot of unknowns, the loss of internships, and loss of living with their friends.”

McNally, who served as co-president of St. Joseph’s Active Minds chapter and plans to attend graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall, said at least students could rely on the routines they’ve established around classes and finals. But summer vacation is a different story.

“Lots of people have lost their internships and summer jobs,” McNally said. “There’s a lot of people who have nothing left to do, and that’s really scary. There are no more distractions for them.”

The pandemic is a “chronic crisis,” Cahn said, which differs from other generational flashpoints like Sept. 11 or the Challenger disaster in that “it’s an ongoing disaster with no end in sight.”

“It’s hard to wrap your mind around that,” she said. “There is so much unknown.”

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For students trying to seek treatment at home, maintaining privacy is an added challenge. Horne, of Active Minds, said that in some students’ cases, their parents might not know they were seeking treatment for mental health issues.

Cahn encouraged those who need mental health services to check with their campus counseling centers, as some offer resources over the summer for students enrolled for fall.

Some schools have implemented technology into their mental health services and tried new strategies to reach students who may need help. Counselors at Temple University hold daily open group sessions on Zoom for students to discuss anything they may be struggling with and share coping strategies. The University of Pennsylvania Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has hosted virtual meditation tutorials and yoga classes to help students unwind.

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Those seeking therapy in the Philadelphia area can consider one of the many services that are offering free or low-cost support, such as the Council for Relationships and the LiveWell Foundation.

The Crisis Text Line is another way to seek help discreetly. The national hotline provides access to free, 24/7 support for anyone experiencing mental health issues by texting HOME to 741741.

Students "are demonstrating a lot of resilience and grit through the pandemic, and should be given a lot of credit for maintaining this mindset under these challenging circumstances,” Horne said.