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Level 5 of Cornell Health provides mental health services to students, this fall CAPS services are provided online and by phone.

September 7, 2020

Addressing Mental Health of College Students During a Pandemic

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Content warning: This article discusses depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns.

As the number of COVID-19 cases on campus continues to rise, stress associated with the pandemic has worsened mental health concerns for many students.

In a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 74.9 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds reported having experienced mental health challenges, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression.

According to postdoctoral researcher Kaylin Ratner, human development, college students often struggle with mental health more as they navigate the uncertain process of becoming independent adults.

However, common parts of emerging adulthood — such as finding work — have become more challenging during the pandemic, which could exacerbate mental health concerns for some young adults, Ratner said.

Ratner explained that the prevalence of mental illnesses in young adults was already increasing pre-pandemic. These conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can alter individuals’ perception of the world, which make coping with a pandemic even more difficult for some individuals.

For example, people with depression tend to pay more attention to negative topics and struggle to be hopeful about the future, according to Ratner.

“The pandemic is rife with negative stimuli to attend to, so it would be easy to become entrapped in a vicious cycle of negative attention and mood,” Ratner said in an email to The Sun.

The pandemic’s toll on mental health creates even more unease for Cornellians coping with pre-existing mental health conditions. Mar Buquez ’22, a first-generation low-income student who has struggled with medication-resistant depression and anxiety for over a decade, has long experienced pain due to mental illness.

Even Buquez, however, did not anticipate the struggles caused by both the pandemic and the subsequent disruption of his ketamine infusions — a treatment for depression that requires a specialized clinic. Stay-at-home orders delayed Buquez’s treatment for seven months, during which he experienced panic attacks and depressive episodes.

“I think the fact that I was used to isolating made it easier to quarantine at the beginning, but as the pandemic goes on the isolation becomes more stressful,” Buquez said.

Although the pandemic has worsened the mental health of many young adults, there are ways students can support one another and improve their own mental well-being.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach for coping mechanisms, Ratner said. However, as a starting point for managing students’ mental health, Ratner recommended using mindfulness apps, staying physically active, sticking to a daily routine and limiting consumption of distressing news sources.

Melanie Little, director of youth services at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, also suggested trying to overcome the effects of social isolation by finding safe, distanced ways to connect with friends, family and peers.

For students, faculty and staff concerned for one another’s mental health, Ratner also suggested empathic listening as a method of providing support.

“When people share problems, they’re not often asking you to solve that problem for them,” Ratner said. “Sometimes just being able to reflect back what you’re hearing — a skill that shows that you acknowledge and understand the speaker’s concerns — is enough for the speaker to feel validated.”

Cornell Health provides a wide range of services for students in need of mental health support. According to Dr. Alecia Sundsmo, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, CAPS will continue to offer telehealth consultation for eligible students in New York.

Students outside of New York cannot get traditional counseling from CAPS due to federal law and licensing guidelines, according to Sundsmo. However, these students can still access CAPS-led workshops and Let’s Talk services as Cornell Health continues to explore other methods of providing support for the future.

“Cornell Health is actively exploring ways to contract with another agency that has access to a large pool of providers licensed in various jurisdictions to provide support to students outside of New York,” Sundsmo said.

Cornell Health also has a virtual support group for students impacted by COVID-19 grief, as well as other free weekly support groups. Faculty and staff can turn to the Faculty & Staff Assistance Program for free professional counseling.