The pandemic is messing with our mental health, do students know how to get help?

College students are struggling with the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on their mental health.

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Dylan Schnur ‘24 walked into the Red Door Cafe on a Wednesday night to propose his pitch for Muhlenberg’s 12th annual Innovation Challenge. Facing two judges and a room filled with fellow students, professors and parents, Schnur flipped through a slideshow presenting his idea for a mental health peer-to-peer coaching model. He explained to the audience that as a student living on-campus during the fall 2020 semester, Schnur struggled to find resources to help him manage the stress and anxiety of the pandemic, so he set out to create one himself.

The transition to college has always been challenging for students, but the last few years have pushed mental health to the forefront. In 2019, nearly 30 percent of people between ages 18 and 25 reported a mental illness and in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. The mental health crisis facing college students is likely to get worse considering the next group of incoming college students are currently facing similar issues according to the New York Times. Thirteen percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode in 2019, a 60 percent increase from 2007. Emergency room visits by children and adolescents in that period also rose sharply for anxiety, mood disorders and self-harm. The pandemic has led to a generation of traumatized teens and young adults.

Most colleges provide some level of in-house counseling or mental health care. Muhlenberg’s counseling center offers in-person and remote counseling through a customized care model, meaning students are able to access 45-50 minute long counseling sessions, either individually or in a group, with no limits on how many times they can access these sessions. In addition, emergency consultations are available 24/7. Their website offers further information about resources for self-help for students.

And while the website says that students are strongly advised to transition to a treatment provider in their community if they wish to engage in regular ongoing therapy, the vast majority of students stay on campus for their services, according to Timothy Silvestri, Ph.D, director of counseling services at the College and licensed psychologist.

I wish they had more.

Anonymous

Silvestri emphasizes that Muhlenberg “strive[s] to be highly adaptive to conversation between the clinician and the student needs,” meaning that each experience with the counseling center is highly individualized. 

“Muhlenberg has so many wonderful services,” says Schnur, “I felt that whenever I needed to address a mental health concern Muhlenberg is and has always been there for me.” 

Other students echoed this. “I would recommend [the counseling center] to people,” said one student who wished to remain anonymous to protect their medical privacy. “I’ve had positive experiences, but it’s really finding the right fit. Finding the right counselor can be challenging, but once you do, it can be really amazing.” 

But even the most robust and effective mental health services are only effective if students understand how and when to access them. “To be honest, I’ve never used [counseling services] because I don’t know what they are,” says Molly Layden ‘24. And she’s not alone in her confusion of these services.

“I know that there’s the counseling center and that’s it. I know it’s in the same building as the gym,” says Lily Savino ‘23.

“I mean, I know that they have like 24 hour, like the emergency line,” says Ethan Lynch ‘22. “And I know that they do counseling services, you can have a therapist, and go to sessions, every week, or bi-weekly or something like that. I think that’s it, I don’t really know anything else.”

While most students seem to have a basic understanding of what Muhlenberg provides, confusion about how to access services could be detrimental to students who could really benefit from the help.

“I don’t think we do a good enough job of advertising [the services] to students,” says Lorenzo Antigua ‘24. “I’ve had this point of view and have had friends with the point of view that ‘I should only use those services if it’s something really bad.’ If I’m just feeling stressed out for like a week, to me that’s not enough for me to go to any type of service, and that’s the perception that needs to be fixed. I don’t necessarily think that’s something that the College is doing wrong, it’s just something that could be improved on.”

“It’s important for students to remember that we have a very strong network of support for students through our CARE team,” says Michele Deegan, dean of academic life and professor of political science. This team consists of administrators from student life and academic life who work together to help students facing health and wellness challenges, according to Deegan.

“I was here on campus in the fall during COVID,” says the anonymous student. “And again, it was tough, but that was tough for everyone. Your friends can be a great way to help, but sometimes it’s good to talk to a professional. I found that they can do much more because of their experience and, like outside perspective, wisdom that sometimes we’re unable to see. I just, I wish they had more. Just like more counselors.”

“I do think that it’s amazing that they’re telling people on campus to see counseling services, that is awesome,” says Renee Levine ‘22, co-president of the Body Positivity club on campus. “Let’s open up the conversation and let’s minimize the stigma towards mental health. But I do think students are ready to jump in. And then it’s like, well, I need to wait two weeks to schedule our next appointment, because other students need services as well.” 

But Muhlenberg has a lower wait time for counseling compared to other higher education institutions and private practices where patients often wait 3-4 weeks. According to Silvestri, the College would have to quadruple the student wellness fee to provide weekly services to 2100 students, as it would most likely take more than 50 counselors to pull off that feat. 

Though the College is doing its best to offer effective and quick mental health services for all students, these services are only helpful if students take the initiative to access them. “When we reach out to students, we hope that they connect with one of us,” says Deegan, referring to the CARE team.

Let’s open up the conversation and let’s minimize the stigma towards mental health.

Renee Levine ’22

Students need to arm themselves with tools to help them get through tough times, like exams and breakups, that all might feel so much harder because of the pandemic-related trauma. Silvestri has noticed that COVID has been a huge complicating factor for students, and—even if students aren’t talking directly about it—they feel stressed out. With the continued effects of the pandemic, there are underlying issues that are not yet visible. 

Making sure that you are equipped for these long term effects in addition to the daily stressors of college life might mean signing up for a counselor, reaching out or responding to the CARE team or making sure you have tools on hand to help yourself. For example, Schnur proposed creating a tool that pairs students with peer counselors and workbooks so they can help themselves. This tool serves as a bridge between ‘everyday’ stressors and when they might need more formal mental health services offered by the College.

For Schnur, he says his proposal is not meant to replace any aspect of the normal Muhlenberg counseling center functions, but rather to strengthen and deepen the conversation surrounding mental health. And the idea of making mental health care more visible to college students clearly struck a nerve with the judges. Schnur went home that night with the $1,000 grand prize win.

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