CLEVELAND, Ohio — The COVID-19 pandemic caused depression and anxiety in people of all ages. For college students, pandemic stress came with a side order of worries about having to move back home, being cut off from peers and classes moving from lecture halls to Zoom.

Campuses closed, scattering students back to their hometowns and away from mental health support at their colleges and universities. Counseling centers had to find ways to deliver mental health services to students, whether they were across Ohio or overseas.

In response, campus mental health professionals pivoted to offering more virtual counseling and online support groups, and providing ways for students to connect with counseling services in their hometowns.

“We have learned to be very nimble,” said Richard Pazol, director of counseling for the university health and counseling service at Case Western Reserve University.

Counseling services had to be nimble, because college students have been hurting, national and local studies confirm.

A Boston University survey of almost 33,000 college students across the country provided a snapshot of how the pandemic affected them.

Half of students who responded to an online survey in fall 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety, the Boston University poll found. About 80% of students said their mental health had made their academic performance worse, and two-thirds of responding students said they struggled with loneliness and feelings of isolation.

Another study, compiled by Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, study analyzed data from nearly 50,000 American college students seeking treatment at 143 counseling centers from July to November 2020.

Penn State found a majority of college students seeking mental health care reported that COVID-19 negatively impacted their mental health (65%), motivation or focus (61%) and academics (59%); and exacerbated feelings of feelings of loneliness or isolation (60%), and having missed experiences and opportunities (54%).

The national numbers are borne out locally.

Among CSU students seeking mental health support recently, 77% reported worse mental health from the pandemic, 69% reported lower motivation, and 66% reported loneliness or isolation, said Katharine Hahn Oh, former director of the Cleveland State University Counseling Center.

“(Depressed students) are likely struggling alone now, or just getting help from friends,” Hahn Oh said.

Mental health counseling is important because it works, Hahn Oh said.

“We can help you get better, graduate and go on with your life,” she said.

Delivering mental health care away from campus

When campuses closed and students returned home, their mental health struggles went with them. Telehealth and virtual platforms have helped bridge the gaps in care. Some counseling centers have resumed in-person counseling.

At the University of Akron, a platform of interactive virtual simulations, called Kognito At-Risk, allows students, faculty and staff to virtually talk to students experiencing emotional distress, said Juanita Martin, UA’s executive director of counseling and accessibility. The program also teaches faculty and staff how to respond to anxious students and refer them to counseling center services.

UA’s undergraduate student government developed a mental health task force and declared student mental health as a special focus area this year, Martin said. And students are considering starting a local chapter of Active Minds, a national student organization focusing on mental health.

CWRU and CSU partnered with online portals that can make online referrals and connect students to counselors wherever they are living now.

“Students needed as much support as the university could muster,” CWRU’s Pazol said. “There will be a need for years to come.”

CSU also hired more counselors, invested in telemedicine software designed for mental health virtual counseling and increased its online group counseling offerings, Hahn Oh said.

College counselors are making plans now to deal with an expected rise in the need for mental health services when a new school year starts in the fall.

CWRU is developing an online program for students that includes a toolbox for managing depression, and considering other ways to help more students seeking counseling.

“We will figure it out,” CWRU’s Pazol said. “I don’t know there is any other choice.”

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Messages related to mental health were projected on the exterior of Trinity Cathedral during Cleveland State University’s recent mental health awareness week. The week’s events featured displays and information about suicide prevention and other mental health issues.

Students have particular burdens

College students watched their families struggle financially, adjusted to various modes of online learning and missed their peers. They wondered whether the pandemic would hurt their education and mourned the lack of a typical college experience.

Young men and women are in a developmental phase when it’s important to take the first steps towards independent adulthood. It’s hard to feel independent when you’ve moved back home.

“For some, it feels like going backwards developmentally,” the University of Akron’s Martin said.

International students who returned to their home countries had to cope with online classes in a different time zone. Those who remained in this country coped with the death of faraway family members with little support.

“Grieving from a distance is definitely really hard,” Hahn Oh said.

How parents can help

Here are suggestions from mental health professionals at CSU, CWRU and the University of Akron on how to support struggling college students:

  • Acknowledge the significant challenges and worries that the pandemic has created for everyone. This time can be especially trying for college students, who have been unable to take part in the social experiences that are such an important part of this time in their lives.
  • Ask students if they feel stressed, anxious or have some sadness. Asking questions can give young people permission to talk about their concerns.
  • Be supportive if the young person would like to speak with a counselor regarding their struggles.
  • Help students schedule the initial meeting with the counselor and navigate insurance coverage questions.
  • Remind young people that they don’t need a mental health diagnosis in order to get care.
  • Point out that counseling services are available at the college or university specifically because many students have similar feelings, especially now.
  • Model good self-care practices, such as getting enough sleep, exercising, showering every day and eating healthful meals.
  • Praise efforts to meet class deadlines and complete coursework.
  • Suggest that students stay in contact with peers, even if conversations happen remotely.

Here are links to places that offer mental health assistance:

Baldwin-Wallace University student counseling

Call 440-826-2180.

Case Western Reserve University student counseling

All CWRU students, regardless of location, can connect with a counselor for a same-day appointment by scheduling through or by calling 216-368-5872 during normal business hours.

Cleveland State University student counseling

CSU Crisis Counseling available 24/7: 216-687-2277.

Kent State University student counseling

Call 330-672-2208.

University of Akron student counseling

Call 330-972-7082.

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