On college campuses, one surprising relief from pandemic stress: friends

Why We Wrote This

Across college campuses, students and mental health providers alike are feeling stretched by the pandemic. Yet both groups are coming up with solutions ­– from telehealth and apps to good, old-fashioned camaraderie.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
Students walk on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

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As with millions of students, the pandemic has radically disrupted college life for Olivia Kane, a freshman at Niagara University in New York. Still, she carries on – rehearsing with a transparent mask in theater class and practicing dance moves remotely over Zoom. 

Such perseverance is becoming all the more necessary, especially for people Ms. Kane’s age. Even before the pandemic, research among younger adults showed a rise in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation – and a corresponding jump in demand for college mental health services, says Laura Horne, program director at Active Minds

That jump has since become a leap.

In response, campus mental health centers nationwide have invested in a variety of student support services, from expanded telehealth access to wellness apps. 

Students themselves are stepping up, too. Rachel Bradley, a senior at Cornell University, leads Cornell Minds Matter, a student mental health group. She also works as a peer counselor

Informal peer support is making a big difference as well. From roommates quarantined together to friends spread out across colleges, students are supporting each other.

“You’re going to get through this,” Ms. Kane tells her friend at another New York university. “We all are.”

Olivia Kane sat in her parked car, wondering what to do. She had just come from an abruptly canceled speech class, after her professor announced that two students had tested positive for COVID-19 and the class may have been exposed. Go to the health center, the professor said, and go home.

But Ms. Kane didn’t know if she could. A commuter student, she lives with her family, and her dad is considered high risk for the virus. What if she brought it back to him? 

After an hour undecided at the wheel, she drove home and quarantined in her brother’s room. She exited days later symptom-free, but shell-shocked. 

That experience crystallized the semester for Ms. Kane, a freshman theater major at Niagara University in New York. For her, as for millions of other students, the coronavirus has radically disrupted college life. Still, she carries on – rehearsing with a transparent mask in theater class and practicing dance moves remotely over Zoom. 

Such perseverance is becoming all the more necessary, especially for people Ms. Kane’s age. More than ever, experts say, this moment demands a commitment to resilience and to that sense of camaraderie born out of collective trauma

“A really positive thing since the pandemic is that we can all relate to some degree of what it’s like for people who struggle every day due to mental health challenges” such as depression, anxiety, and distress, says Laura Horne, program director at Active Minds

Younger adults make up an almost paradoxical demographic when it comes to the effects of COVID-19. They’re among the least vulnerable to its physical risks and among the most vulnerable to its mental ones. And since March, they’ve been at the fore of concerning trends in mental health, which experts say have now evolved into a national crisis.   

Courtesy of Olivia Kane
Olivia Kane is a freshman theater major at Niagara University in New York. College during the pandemic hasn’t been what she thought, but like millions of other students across the country, she’s persevering.

Campuses respond to worsening trends

Even before the pandemic, research among younger adults showed a rise in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation – and a corresponding jump in demand for college mental health services, says Ms. Horne. 

But that jump has since become a leap. Since March, per Active Minds’ research, some 80% of young people say their mental health has worsened. In a midsummer Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, more than 62% of 16- to 24-year-olds reported anxiety or depression. Around a quarter said they had seriously considered suicide in the last month. 

Such startling numbers are the end of a complex function. The pandemic has inflicted physical harm nationwide. In turn, that threat of physical harm has limited in-person contact with mental health providers and forced arduous adaptations to virtual platforms. In effect, mental and physical health have become something of a zero-sum game. 

And the longer that game lasts, the more difficult its effects are to treat, says John Blackshear, dean of students in Student Affairs at Duke University and a clinical psychologist. 

Like many other colleges early this year, says Dr. Blackshear, Duke thought the pandemic would be an acute crisis, enormously disruptive but isolated in time. But as the pandemic proves more elastic, and students’ stress persists, mental health staff are being stretched like never before. 

In response, universities nationwide have invested in a range of student support services: 

  • Expanded telehealth access, allowing for virtual counseling  
  • Wellness app licenses for therapeutic activities like meditation 
  • Increased publicity of available mental health resources, helping drive student awareness to record-high rates

They’ve also tried to smooth the transition to virtual learning. A sense of continuity during online education, says Dr. Blackshear, helps limit the logistical stressors of college during the pandemic and keep students from feeling overwhelmed. 

Students step up for each other 

At the individual level, this semester of discontent has been a crucible for students, as well, while they adjust to adulthood in the context of chaos. 

That’s where one of the most encouraging trends of this year fits, says Ms. Horne. Students are relying on friends for support more than ever – friends like Rachel Bradley.

Ms. Bradley, a senior at Cornell University, leads Cornell Minds Matter, a student mental health group. She and other students have spent the semester hosting campus events and performing small acts of encouragement. Motivated by her own experience in therapy, Ms. Bradley also works as a peer counselor for students who need the relief of a listening ear. 

Peer support works informally too. At least it has for Julia Cheng, a freshman at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

Early in the semester, insufficient safety protocols and student parties led to a campus coronavirus outbreak. But as JMU sent students home, Ms. Cheng applied for special permission to stay, since she lives with a grandparent. For the same reason, her roommate did too. 

College hasn’t been what Ms. Cheng expected, but the friendship made possible by countless hours in quarantine together has kept her happy and helped her adjust. The semester, she says, has even been good for her mental health.

Others were less fortunate. 

Declan Downey, another JMU freshman, returned home when campus closed, disappointed in the lack of student accountability and with little to do.

“It was pretty much just school, sleep, and work,” he says.

JMU has since allowed students to return, and while Mr. Downey enjoys being back on campus, he still feels a sense of loss. Friends help, but at a certain point mental health professionals may be better equipped to meet student needs, he says.

Camaraderie in common struggles 

Along with promoting de-stressing outlets, reliable routines, and clinical support if necessary, mental health professionals recognize the need for a stronger sense of camaraderie in this lengthening crisis.

“Connectedness and a sense of belonging [are] so crucial in any kind of crisis situation,” says Joy Himmel, a therapist with the American College Health Association.

The ideal is for students to practice self-care and stay aware of their needs in the moment, says Ms. Himmel. Maybe, though, self-care, when so many people face the same challenges, involves staying aware of others as well.

Ms. Kane, at Niagara University, thinks so. 

When she’s not watching “The Office” or listening to 60s music to relax, she calls a friend from high school – also a freshman theater student but at a different college in New York. 

“The advice I … give to her is, obviously, stay strong,” Ms. Kane says.  “You’re going to get through this,” she tells her friend. “We all are.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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