Colleges working to expand mental health services amid pandemic stress

Colleges working to expand mental health services amid pandemic stress

WORCESTER, Mass. — These are stressful times for college students as many campuses are still developing plans about how to safely start-up in just a few weeks.

Those plans often include the expansion of mental health services.

Gianna Godek, an incoming freshman at UMass Amherst, isn’t quite sure what to expect when she starts school. “College has always been a dream for me. I’ve been really excited to go ever since I was little.”

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Hearing stories from her older brother has only made her more excited to go. “My brother is at the University of Maryland and he’s always coming home, saying ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so much fun!’”

But now the recent graduate of Shrewsbury High School isn’t quite sure what to expect. “What’s it going to look like? Am I going to have those connections with my professors? Am I going to have those connections with my friends? Is it going to be worth going to campus or should I be staying home?”

Godek has a positive attitude and an open mind and is going to try living on campus while taking classes remotely. “It’s not going to be anything related to normal college life.”

But for many students, so much change to their expectations of college life can be too much to take.

“Students are coming to campus, and have been long before the pandemic, with more and more mental health needs,” said Laura Murphy, Associate Dean for Health and Wellness and Director of Counseling at Worcester State University.

Murphy says the current population of 18-24-year-olds grew up in a time of cyberbullying and social unrest, and already have higher levels of anxiety and depression than previous generations.

The pandemic has only made the situation worse.

“We know our seniors in high school lost most of their senior year, and now they’re coming here having to adjust under circumstances that are beyond difficult to imagine,” added Murphy.

This spring, the American College Health Association surveyed 18,000 students on 14 campuses to gauge their mental health.

Two-thirds of the respondents said they were now feeling more financial stress, 36% reported that they had to find a new living situation because of the pandemic, and 60% said it was difficult to access mental health care.

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“We have spent a lot of time changing our strategy, updating our training program,” said Murphy.

Many colleges also expanding their services and rethinking how they deliver them.

“So, a lot of extra steps,” explained Murphy. “We have to do a pre-screening before a telehealth visit, for appropriateness, but that’s where we are and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Even as their kids get older, parents still have a role to play according to Murphy. She says parents should look at whether your child is getting too isolated. They should be communicating not only within the family but with their peers, even on social media or Zoom. She adds that you want to make sure they’re doing their schoolwork which can also provide clues on their state of mind.

Murphy says that while a majority of their counseling sessions will be via telehealth this semester, she does anticipate being able to hold some sessions in person.

She is also happy that Worcester State University just received a financial award from the JED Foundation which will allow them to expand a variety of mental health services.

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