By Riley Bermingham
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
For many, college is a time for freedom, growth and change. College is being independent for the first time, and college is exciting, new and daunting.
College is also late nights in the library spent with a coffee and a textbook. It is no secret that with these new beginnings comes an element of stress, and there probably always will.
Days crammed with classes and studying for midterms and finals – ask anybody, it’s not easy. But, it is all worth it when you spend time with friends, make it to the weekend, or fall break, or spring break … or at least that is how it used to be.
The pandemic has exemplified the regular stresses of the college lifestyle, but made it even more grueling.
Universities have shifted to remote learning, paused in-person clubs and extracurriculars, and condensed their calendars, removing breaks as a precaution to avoid unnecessary travel and a possible outbreak of the virus. This is an effective way to prevent the spread of disease and maintain the physical health of students, but mental health may be taking the backseat.
According to Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a mental health researcher from Boston University and one of the co-principal investigators of the Healthy Minds Study, 83% of college students shared that their current state of mental health has negatively affected their academics, and approximately 66% of college students have felt more alone and isolated this semester than ever before. This data was collected through an online survey administered during the 2020 fall semester through the Healthy Minds Network.
Three students share their experiences as college students amid the pandemic and ways that schools could best provide for struggling students below.
Julianna Argenio, a transfer student at Niagara University, shares that “the coronavirus has affected me in the way of not being as social. I am someone who always has to be doing something – and doing something with people. With restrictions and rules to follow, I haven't been able to do as much. Finding a way to be safe and smart during the pandemic is something that I have had to learn while socializing during a pandemic.”
The restrictions put in place have affected all students, but first-year and transfer students especially. Many students have yet to familiarize themselves with peers, professors, and the campus, adding another aspect of unfamiliarity to the year.
Olivia Sauda, a first-year student at Gannon University, shares that “This year and especially last summer my mental health was at an all-time low. We had restrictions on what floor we could go on and what buildings we could go in. It was difficult to meet people and create a circle of friends when the university was preventing us from even speaking to students outside our floor.”
Olivia also explains that the university’s revised calendars made her transition to college life challenging.
“Due to the coronavirus, we could have no contact with outside friends and family. The switch from living at home to college was hard enough, and not being able to have a familiar face in my dorm made me feel isolated and alone. Being someone that already struggles with depression and anxiety, these precautions made living at college almost unbearable,” Olivia said.
Is there a way for colleges to help students maintain good mental health while also keeping campuses physically safe?
Sauda recommends that colleges could improve their mental health resources by creating support groups.
“Being able to meet more people who relate to your struggles makes it easier to relate and open up to others,” Olivia added.
Many colleges have implemented various self-care days throughout the semester to provide a break for students in the absence of their normal holiday breaks.
Anjulyn Hvisdak, a first-year student at Canisius College, shares that Canisius’ “Cura Personalis” days, or “care for the whole person” days, have created a more positive on-campus experience compared to the experience during the fall semester.
“After having no days off last semester the school got much feedback from students saying it was very hard on their mental health, so they implemented these mental health days in response to the students and to give the students days for themselves and to get back on track,” Anjulyn explained. “These days have honestly been very helpful because it gives us something to look forward to and they almost feel like a reward for all the hard work we have been doing. They allow us to have time for ourselves which we often forget to do in the midst of school, homework and practices.”
While implementing self-care days is heading in the right direction, some students are unable to use these days to relax due to their rigorous schedules for the rest of the week.
“I do think self-care days are important for students because it does give us a break, but giving us more self-care days in future years would help tremendously,” Argenio shared.
“Having one day off in a span of a few weeks is not enough. Our brains are already on high max capacity with school, exams, work, studying, and coronavirus, so to have more days off to focus on our mental health would be prime,” Argenio added.
Colleges must also work to bring awareness to mental health and make on-campus resources widely known.
“Personally at my school, we lack staffing at the counseling center. There is typically a waitlist of two to three weeks just to get a first appointment. Having more staff would increase outreach to students and overall make counseling have a more positive connotation,” Olivia shared.
What measures are universities taking to create a welcoming environment on campus amid the pandemic?
“The mental health of our students is of the utmost importance,” a staff member at Niagara University shared.
Niagara University has worked to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation by hosting a number of campus activities. Their goal is to generate the pre-pandemic college experience and social environment safely.
“Throughout the academic year activities sponsored by student organizations such as Campus Programming Board, student groups through the office of Multicultural Affairs, Student Government, Active Minds, and others have provided both virtual and in-person opportunities for students to be engaged in fun and educational programming,” Bill Newton, Niagara University's assistant director of campus activities shared.
“Virtual events like the Thursday Night Trivia series have regularly had nearly 100 students participate and I've been impressed with our student leaders who have used a great deal of creativity in planning safe and enjoyable events. This includes offering multiple sessions of the same program so that more students can participate,” Newton adds.
With all the challenges that the pandemic brings, students must practice self-care in their personal lives as well. It is completely normal to feel anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, but remember that you are not alone.
Below are some resources and tips that can help students cope with however they may be feeling. These ideas are inspired by California Community College’s “How to Practice Self-Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
1. Establish a daily routine and keep to it: When stressed, it is easy to fall out of routines and stay in bed under the covers. However, setting small goals for the day and sticking to a routine puts you in control.
2. Try to form a new, healthy habit: Exercising, going for a run, or doing yoga are ways to stay physically active and get endorphins flowing through the body which will improve mental health as well. If you are unable to exercise, light stretching, meditation, or going for a walk are great alternatives.
3. Stay Social: Even while maintaining physical distance, it is possible to stay in touch with friends and family. Utilize technology and communicate through calls, Facetime and social media, or safely meet with a few friends outdoors while following proper protocol.
4. Reach out to friends or professional help if needed: Many colleges hold remote counseling services over Zoom or Google Meet or have access to outside mental health providers.
Do not hesitate to contact help. If you’re experiencing an immediate crisis, call 911, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or text “COURAGE” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line).
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