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The new Coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19 has upended countless lives, and college students are no exception. But the additional stress placed on students has left some struggling to manage their mental health during home quarantines, social distancing, and missed milestones like graduation.
One in five college students say their mental health has significantly worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, according to an April survey of more than 2,000 students conducted by the nonprofit Active Minds. While mental health experts and researchers don't yet know the full extent of the virus's impact on the mental health of college-age students, some fear the population may be at high risk.
"The rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD and eating disorders in this population have been very high, and that was prior to January 2020," says Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "When you add in this new set of stressors, I think there's every reason to be concerned, but we need the data to know what that really looks like, and we don't yet have it."
Because 75% of adults with a mental illness first began experiencing it before age 25, Insel says, mental problems are "the chronic disorders of the student-aged population" and stand apart from most other medical disorders, which are more common later in life.
To best reduce the spread of the coronavirus, scientists and government officials are urging people to stay at home and practice social distancing. But from a mental health perspective, especially for those experiencing depression, social isolation can cause such disorders to worsen, says Brad Klontz, a psychologist and associate professor at Creighton University in Nebraska.
"Your vision of how your life was going to be at this time has changed," Klontz says. "In the realm of psychology, we would call this an adjustment disorder. You're adjusting to these significant changes in your life, and it could lead to a clinically significant impairment in some area of your life, and for a lot of people I think it is. This is traumatic, and it could potentially last a lifetime."
Klontz says college students are facing unique additional challenges during this time, including stress about how to pay for college as financial situations change and worries about future career and job prospects as internships are canceled and millions of workers file for unemployment benefits.
TJ Annerino, a junior at Auburn University in Alabama, says college students are experiencing more stress as they adjust to a loss of structure in their lives and a new academic playing field in the form of online classes.
"Now waking up and maybe you don't have an office or a desk – for example, my desk is my dining room table – you have to do what you used to do at the library," she says.
"It's been a big change having to rewire your brain to learn in this online environment. There are a lot of professors that rely on in-class participation, but now grading is different. New requirements like online discussions and assignments are adding more things to your to-do list," Annerino says.
Mental health issues can be devastating for students and their families. Over the last two decades, the number of suicides in college-age populations in the U.S. has surged, making suicide the second-leading cause of mortality for this group. Experts worry the coronavirus outbreak and response will exacerbate the problem.
"There's no question from most corners that the behavioral health consequences are going to be enormous," Insel says. "It's quite possible that in the United States, the suicide deaths in 2020 and the overdose deaths in 2020 will surpass the COVID deaths. We're not just talking about concerns around wellness; these are people who are sometimes dealing with life-and-death issues."
Many student health centers that offer counseling and psychological services remain open to students, though these college resources are often available only virtually. Some colleges offer workshops and group counseling, while some private organizations like Mindstrong offer texting therapy through apps.
Klontz encourages students to take advantage of these virtual resources. Counseling and therapy can be conducted online through video calls, and he says many students are taking advantage of telehealth during the pandemic.
To maintain social connectedness, Annerino says students are hosting Netflix parties where they can watch the same movie and chat with each other, or using the QuarantineChat mobile app to talk on the phone with someone assigned randomly.
Through Active Minds, which has chapters on college campuses across the country, students can access a chat about the mental health coping mechanisms that are working for them in an open channel on Slack, a messaging tool, along with other college-specific resources.
Klontz advises students to do whatever works for them.
"Take the initiative," he says. "There's a lot (of social interaction) you were getting without ever thinking about it. If that connection is really important to your mental health and you've just had to reduce it by 90%, you have to find a way to build it back up. Be more purposeful, schedule virtual coffee meetings – these things are profoundly helpful, since one of the worst things is to feel alone."