Pandemic raises mental health concerns for college students

Ken Chew, director of Indiana State University’s Student Counseling Center

COVID-19 may not be the primary mental health issue for college students, but it is exacerbating other issues they have, said Ken Chew, director of the ISU Student Counseling Center.

Similar to many other providers, the Student Counseling Center is using mostly tele-health or phone to work with students, thereby protecting them and counseling center staff from the coronavirus.

Sessions with students had slowed down during spring break, but they are picking up again, as students finish out their academic year online and off campus.

Anxiety and depression tend to be the major mental health issues for college students, he said. COVID-19 tends to be more of a secondary concern, or it exacerbates other issues students face.

Social distancing, stay-at-home orders and closure of many businesses students frequent is taking its toll, Chew said. They don’t have access to their normal coping mechanisms, whether a workout at the fitness center or gathering with friends at a coffee shop.

“People have interpreted social distancing as social isolation,” Chew said. “Isolation is not a good thing for human beings. We need social interaction as part of our normal coping strategies.”

Across the nation, anxiety remains a top issue mental health professionals deal with, he said. But with COVID-19 and people in confined spaces and not getting out, “We’re seeing increases in things like depression, domestic violence and conflicts among people who are kind of stuck together,” he said.

As the pandemic continues, students may deal with secondary trauma, including grief/loss issues if they’ve lost loved ones, as well as remorse and guilt if they fear they transmitted the virus to a loved one.

Relationships may suffer, either because people are too far apart or too close together for too long.

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted college students in other ways, forcing many to return home earlier than anticipated.

“Some students come from homes or backgrounds filled with trauma or conflict,” and they are returning to those settings, Chew said.

Also, college may be the first time students are taking on adult responsibilities and they have more autonomy in how they live their lives. Just as they are navigating what it means to be an adult, now, that’s taken away and they must return home.

It can be a “shock to their system,” Chew said. They are young adults who “didn’t get a chance to have an adequate transition at the end of the year.”

At first, it’s nice to be home, but then, students realize, “You can never go home … It’s never the same.”

He encourages students to “find little pieces of normalcy” each day; stay active; use mindfulness meditation; use the extra time they now may have for self-reflection and “take some time to express gratitude for what they have and the people around them.”

COVID-19 “has basically changed the world, at least for right now. We have to navigate different ways of managing ourselves and our stress,” Chew said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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