A new urgency for college students' mental health
Jesse Brownell said she felt lost last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic upended her freshman year at Dartmouth College. But in the months that followed, the 19-year-old regained her footing. She moved into a house near campus with friends this school year and restarted practices with the women's squash team.
Then, earlier this month, she contracted the coronavirus and had to spend more than a week in isolation housing. She couldn't be around friends and was barred from playing sports. Alone, she consumed herself with schoolwork.
"I felt like I was spiraling," Brownell said. She says she doesn't think she'll feel comfortable being alone for a while: "I just didn't expect the mental impact. I definitely am still feeling a little more mentally down, mentally fuzzy."
Across the country, some school leaders and experts say the pandemic has brought new urgency to a mental health crisis that had been unraveling on college campuses for years. From social isolation to heightened feelings of inadequacy, students say it has made it harder to concentrate on school and put a strain on families and friendships.
Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 for years have struggled disproportionally with mental illness compared with older groups, and experts cite such underlying factors as high expectations, social media and financial pressures. Now, evidence shows college students experienced higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation in 2020 than in 2019.
Despite the promises of vaccines and a return to normal in the fall, students are still stressed, overwhelming campus counseling centers with requests for treatment. Unable to see most students in person, school counselors have responded by developing self-help tools and hosting virtual therapy sessions.
Many students, whether they've contracted the virus or not, are reeling from the last year of uncertainty and wonder when they'll recover.
'What am I doing wrong?'
When senior Cameron Nolan returned to Morehouse College for the spring semester, he was not the person he was a year ago, when he hurriedly packed his belongings and moved back home with his mom in Jackson, Miss.
Nolan had just been elected student body president at the Atlanta college when the pandemic took hold in the United States. Morehouse closed its campus and, suddenly, the 21-year-old could not lead in the way he had imagined.
"I'm such an in-your-face, extroverted leader," said Nolan, an economics major. "I was at a loss. I literally lost the human connection, and, for a moment, I had no clue how I still wanted to make my goals come true."
Nolan picked up a job at Walmart and managed to stay on top of his schoolwork, but being away from the life he built at school was tough, he said. In high school, he worked hard to secure the scholarships, test scores and GPA he needed to succeed at Morehouse.
"All that felt like it was in vain when you have to go back to your hometown," he said.
Nolan said he started crying more at home, just to release his pent-up emotions. Morehouse offers counseling and other services, but Nolan said he coped by keeping in touch with his friends from school, what Nolan calls his "band of brothers."
"Black men have to be hypermasculine at all times," Nolan said. "It is perfectly okay to feel your emotions. It is perfectly okay to be sad."
He also spent a lot of time journaling, anxiously outlining his future for when he could finally restart his life. Returning home made Nolan feel like his life had stopped but, online, it seemed like others were still moving. He would scroll through Instagram and see people taking trips, getting new jobs and buying cars.
"Although those things are positive experiences, you're looking at yourself like, 'What am I doing wrong?' " Nolan said. "When you have this overload of positivity, you always feel like you're behind."
What Nolan was doing - scrolling and comparing - isn't unusual, said Ryan Patel, a psychiatrist in Ohio State University's counseling center and chair-elect of the American College Health Association's mental health section. The popularity of social media is one of the factors leading to higher rates of anxiety among young people and increasing the pressure they feel to achieve.
"This is the first generation of students that have spent their entire adolescence on smartphones and social media and things like that," Patel said. "Especially with those kinds of technologies, they may be comparing their average self to the shining moments on social media, and falsely thinking that everybody is like that in all aspects of their lives."