Coronavirus Raises Mental Health Concerns for College Students

30 May 2020

Growing up in Athens, Greece, Lydia Borsi remembers feeling tested when she tried to deal with mental health issues.

Borsi says she had been seeing a therapist for anxiety. But she notes that people in Greece do not openly discuss mental health issues, which also get little attention in general healthcare services.

"It was a lot more secretive, and ‘Oh, where is she going?' And people thought that I was a lot more unique," Borsi told VOA.

That all changed in 2017 when she moved to the United States to study neuroscience at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.

"When I came here ... I really liked that people were not afraid to speak up about mental health and say that it's important," she said.

The university was very supportive of her needs and offered plenty of information, Borsi said. She also became involved with a school group called Active Minds. It is part of a nationwide organization that helps students deal with mental health issues.

Then the novel coronavirus appeared in China and began spreading around the world. In March, the University of Rochester moved all its classes online. Luckily, the school also moved some of its mental health resources online. Borsi was also able to connect with a mental health expert outside the school, in the local community.

In this November 14, 2019, photo, a student attaches a note to the Resilience Project board on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah. The purpose of the project is to let students know that it is OK to struggle.
In this November 14, 2019, photo, a student attaches a note to the Resilience Project board on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah. The purpose of the project is to let students know that it is OK to struggle.

But as many of her American friends returned home, Borsi was stuck. Greece had succeeded in limiting the spread of the virus within its borders, but flights there from the U.S. are barred until July. And the health crisis has put her plans to seek admission to medical school in Britain on hold.

Far from her family and unsure about the future, Borsi says dealing with the virus has not made her mental health problems any easier. And she is not alone.

In April, Active Minds launched a survey of over 2,000 students at U.S. colleges and universities. The study found that over 80 percent of those asked said the coronavirus crisis had negatively affected their mental health. And one in five said it has affected them severely.

Laura Horne is the chief program officer at Active Minds. She says the findings are especially troubling given that the crisis is only going to make it harder for colleges and universities to help these students.

In 2018, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that student use of campus mental health services rose by an average of 30 to 40 percent between 2009 and 2015.

Horne calls the increase a good thing since it shows that more students are willing to discuss their problems and seek help. But even with many schools moving online, the economic problems resulting from the virus will likely put serious limitations on their spending for mental health services.

"None of us has done this before, including colleges and universities," Horne said. "And they had to pivot rather quickly to respond to COVID-19 and figure out all facets of university life, including mental health services. And they're having to figure out how to communicate with students."

Frank Chen is a Houston, Texas-based psychiatrist who has worked with college-age young adults. He points out that individuals at that age are in an important stage of their mental development. And college can be a difficult experience for students with or without mental health issues, as they balance work, studies, and personal relationships.

Adding a major world event, like the spread of the coronavirus, makes it very difficult to predict what the long-term psychological effects might be.

"I don't think that there's another event in the history of the people who are alive now that can really measure up to this," said Chen.

But while many students like Lydia Borsi feel their schools are doing the best they can, others feel somewhat under-supported.

Seamus Hawks of Greenfield, Massachusetts was found to suffer from psychosis when he was 16 years old. When he began studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2017, Hawks quickly noted that while individuals seemed very supportive, the school -- as a whole –- lacked a sense of understanding.

"When there is a Mental Health Week, depression and anxiety are always mentioned, which is great. But I rarely see psychosis mentioned," he said.

As psychosis is less common than other conditions, Hawks worries that people like him might not get the support they need. Classes and support services may move online, but the video conferencing services they use can worsen the effects of psychosis.

I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

therapistn. a person who helps people deal with mental or emotional problems by talking about those problems

anxietyn. fear or nervousness about what might happen

uniqueadj. used to say that something or someone is unlike anything or anyone else

survey n. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something

negativelyadv. done in a way that is harmful or bad

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

pivotv. to turn on or around a central point

respondv. to do something as a reaction to something that has happened or been done

facet(s) – n. a part or element of something

psychosis n. a very serious mental illness that makes you behave strangely or believe things that are not true