In the midst of a pandemic, mental health challenges grow

Kate Grumbles, News Reporter

As college students across the country adjust to their new routines at home or on campus, they must recon with new mental health challenges as well. 

For many students, issues of maintaining a source of income, food insecurity, housing and rent costs, isolation, inability to complete schoolwork for various reasons and limited or no access to campus resources are a few factors that make life more difficult. In general, public health emergencies like COVID-19 increase pressure on the most vulnerable communities, which include students whose regular source of income has been upset. Rise, a nonprofit advocacy group, surveyed 500 college students recently and found that 75 percent had higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than they did before the virus. 

For universities, the challenge has been attempting to ease this stress for students who are spread out across the country and unable to access in-person resources. As of mid-March, around twelve colleges chose to make all their classes Pass/Fail for the spring semester. Others, such as Whitman, have opted to make grading slightly more flexible with longer periods for students to decide to opt for Pass/Fail for their courses. Beyond academic stress, the lack of in-person connection is something that Whitman has attempted to address. Whitman Virtual Campus is a new online resource for students that potentially helps to address some of the isolation and lack of connection between students, faculty, staff and other community members. 

As Whitman moved online in March, the college’s counseling center closed its doors to students as well. For Whitman students still living in Washington state, teletherapy is accessible for individuals who had previously established relationships with counselors. Providing teletherapy to students living outside of Washington is illegal, however, which removes this source of treatment for many Whitman students who might rely on it. For students now living at home or on their own, seeking outside counseling could be a serious financial burden, or be inaccessible if their family or community does not support that treatment. 

Online resources for mental health have become more numerous as in-person treatment remains inaccessible. The Counseling Center has a webpage entitled Coronavirus Resources. The page lists websites and free apps for students and community members to try out. Some of its features listed include different apps to help manage mental health and mood, free meditations and other websites with other tips for managing stress and mental health.  

The Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) has played an active role in easing student stress, including providing financial assistance, rides to the airport and moving assistance. In addition to these more tangible modes of assistance, ASWC sends a Mental Health Newsletter to the Whitman community weekly. A group of ASWC representatives and other independent students on campus meet every Sunday to create this resource. The topics thus far have included information about online resources, ways to utilize the counseling center during quarantine, activities to increase positive emotions and ways to maintain a healthy relationship with food during quarantine. 

Sophomore Sneh Chachra, an ASWC sustainability committee member, has been part of the group of students putting these newsletters together every week. Chachra gave her perspective on what challenges students may be facing at this time, hoping that the newsletters can help address some of these issues.

“There are the more collective challenges that we are all resonating with, like maintaining self-care with distanced learning and understanding that productivity isn’t everything. However, there are also more personal and hidden struggles we are facing as individuals that are being exacerbated by the situation and weighing on our mental health,” Chachra said. “These tend to be especially difficult to cope through as mental health is something that is rather taboo, stigmatized and suppressed, making it difficult to talk about, thus resulting in many coping in silence and not really knowing where to go.”

Senior Nikki Delgado, another member of the committee working on the newsletters, stressed the importance of remaining connected. 

“We hope that students learn the importance of mental health and wellness, especially during this uncertain and stressful time. We want students to take care of themselves while being compassionate and supporting others,” Delgado said in an email to The Wire. “Adapting to the new ‘normal’ has undoubtedly been difficult, but we hope students understand that they are not alone.”

Resources for mental health: 

Whitman Counseling Center Coronavirus Resources: Free online resources that can help students manage their mental health

Whitman Virtual Campus: Whitman page that provides links to online events, the Talent/Skill Share and the Creativity Commons

ASWC Support: Comprehensive resource page which includes information about requesting financial and moving assistance, links to volunteering and donation information and complies all the ASWC mental health newsletters