WASHINGTON — While the coronavirus pandemic upended most aspects of college life this past year, its impact on students’ mental health has had Catholic college and university leaders looking for new ways to reach students and get resources to them.
Before the pandemic, there was already a “mental health crisis” for college students across the country, with the overall demand for services exceeding what was available, said Michael Lovell, president of Marquette University in Milwaukee.
He said the pandemic brought on “more isolation, anxiety and depression,” so when Marquette opened back up in a hybrid format last fall, “we knew we had to increase our offerings” to give students more support.
He said the school, as a Jesuit institution, is concerned with the whole person, “mind, body and spirit” and has been “helping students navigate a very different year,” especially when they have not been on campus or are there amid numerous restrictions at a traditionally social time.
“It is not what they expected,” he said, of how students imagined their first few years on campus.
One immediate way to help alleviate some financial stress for students — and their parents — moving forward, was the school’s announcement that it was freezing tuition for the upcoming school year.
And to help students cope now with everyday stresses of the pandemic on top of everything else they are dealing with, Lovell said the university has been “trying to be creative in finding new and different ways to help with mental health.” These include mental health days during the semester called “MU Staycation Days” with mini golf, laser tag, yoga, craft workshops, food trucks and fireworks.
Taking this a step further, faculty members have been asked not to give assignments that would be due the next day.
He said counselors also have gone directly to classrooms to reach students where they are and provide resources or talk to those who might not have gone to the university’s counseling center.
In the course of the pandemic, counselors have been advising students to take some time to be reflective, which Lovell also emphasizes when he addresses the campus, and he makes sure to practice what he preaches.
“To be honest, we have all struggled. I’ve had dark times, especially in November when I thought this might never end and the impact was monumental,” he told Catholic News Service March 16.
He urges students and faculty members to make sure they check in on each other, get outside and take 15 minutes to pray each day. He follows this routine with daily exercise and prayer, especially with eucharistic adoration.
Jason Parcover, director of the Counseling Center at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, similarly said he and his colleagues have been creative in reaching out to students, recognizing the hardships they have been facing this past year.
At first, in the scramble of closing the campus and moving to remote learning last spring, he said the challenge was to keep connected with students.
“We reached out right away and tried to stay connected,” he said, especially with students who were already in treatment, but the counseling center’s participants have also increased over the year even for those seeking therapy for the first time.
Students in therapy faced the logistical challenge of finding places, with everyone home, to talk privately with university counselors. For some, it meant talking in cars, for others, sitting in hallways practically whispering.
Parcover said for students who were already struggling with anxiety and depression, their symptoms “quickly became exacerbated” in the pandemic, and for students back home in already difficult family situations, their “stress ramped up quickly.”
“For everyone, the sense of belongingness was really impaired,” particularly with the loneliness, isolation and the uncertainty for the age group that is “launching out onto the world to find its independence.” All the rituals they were accustomed to or getting ready for were “all taken away without warning,” he added.
Parcover said he tried to help students, especially seniors, recognize that what they have been going though was a stage of grief for all that was lost.
During the spring semester this year, when many students have returned to campus, but where campus life has not returned to normal, the university’s counseling center, campus ministry and student development division have come up with virtual and socially distanced opportunities for students in the form of dozens of support groups.
Just being together provides a sense of universality and a reminder that “we’re all trying to live through a really scary time,” Parcover said.
In the past year, he has seen “incredible stories of resilience and grit. … Many have learned they have strength they didn’t recognize they had.”
The challenge of the past year and also the accomplishment of getting through it also came across in the responses to surveys last fall from faculty, staff members and students at Trinity Washington University, gauging their pandemic school experience.
Results of the three surveys, conducted while the university was not in-person also included comments.
One student said the fall semester was “extremely exhausting” and that there was “no separation from work, school and home.”
A staff member said “social isolation and mental health is a major issue for students, which is not surprising” and also added that students “have shown a lot of resilience.”