Students access on and off-campus mental health resources during the pandemic

Layla Razvi/The Occidental

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported in August that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on young adults in the U.S. In representative panel surveys of 18 to 24-year-olds conducted by the CDC, 74.9 percent of survey respondents reported at least one adverse mental health symptom, 62.9 percent reported having symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder and 24.7 percent reported increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress or emotions. According to a Sept. 2 email sent by Senior Director of Student Wellness Sara Semal, Emmons Wellness Center counselors will provide ongoing individual telecounseling to students residing in California, and all other students regardless of location can access group therapy, virtual walk-ins and virtual drop-in chats.

According to Jenny Heetderks, interim director of counseling at Emmons, only students residing in California are able to access individual therapy at Emmons due to licensing restrictions. For students outside of California, Heetderks said Emmons is offering all students three months of paid access to BetterHelp, which is an online telecounseling platform.

Yingfei Xin (senior), an Active Minds e-Board member, said that, as an out-of-state student, she has been using BetterHelp.

“After learning that I could not utilize Emmon’s telehealth service, I found that my Oxy insurance 100 percent covers mental health service on BetterHelp,” Xin said via email. “It was free even a month after my Oxy insurance had expired. My experience with it has been great.”

According to Active Minds president Junko Anderson (senior), online or teletherapy can have certain advantages that traditional in-person therapy lacks.

“You have the benefit of not having to commute to a therapist,” Anderson said via email. “Doing things on screen is also different: I find I talk with my hands higher than I do normally so that the camera can capture my gestures. Just as I communicate differently to my counselor, you can also ask a counselor to communicate differently to you, such as asking them to sit further or closer to the camera so you feel you have comfortable space.”

Xin also said knowing the therapist cannot see her from the neck down makes her feel more at ease in online therapy.

Anderson said while traditional talking therapy might not work for everyone, the most important thing is finding the tools that support one’s needs and mental wellbeing. For Anderson, therapy serves as a consistent source of interpersonal interaction.

“It’s fairly common not to want to burden your friends with the negatives, and since current negatives are so constant and unchanging, it might feel like being an upsetting broken record. You don’t have to worry about that stuff with a therapist, and getting that virtual face time can be really grounding,” Anderson said via email.

For McKenna Matus (sophomore), moving home at the beginning of the pandemic also coincided with her enrollment in an intensive outpatient program in April, in which she did online group therapy. Matus said she finds in-person therapy to be intense at times, and feels more relaxed in therapy over Zoom.

Matus said therapy has played a vital role in her life as it has allowed her to speak to mental health professionals in a way that is separate from her day-to-day life.

“Every person should have someone that they can talk to with no judgement and no biases,” Matus said. “I think it’s just extremely important for maintaining not only your mental health but your physical well being, your academic career. … Students are constantly juggling a million things at a time and having someone that’s not part of your life in some facet or some way to just have that nonbiased opinion, I think it’s really important.”

According to Heetderks, interim director of counseling at Emmons, there are many different aspects of the pandemic and remote learning that have impacted college students’ mental health.

“A college student’s ability to do college remotely is dependent on access to reliable wifi, a computer, and a private space to study and virtually attend class. Not all college students have access to those things, and find their learning disproportionately impacted,” Heetderks said via email. “Additionally, because of the pandemic, many people are experiencing trauma symptoms including difficulty concentrating, decreased motivation, decreased creativity, difficulty sleeping, fatigue and decreased/increased appetite, all of which make learning more difficult.”

In addition to these factors, Director of Disability Services and Student Support Luci Masredjian said students who dealt with symptoms of anxiety or depression before the pandemic have often had heightened symptoms during the remote semester. According to Masredjian, many students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have also been significantly impacted by the transition to remote learning.

“The structure of in-person classes, and the expectation that we move from one building to another in between classes, that we have intentional study spaces and standard times for meals and socializing is healthy for most, but necessary for students with ADHD,” Masredjian said via email.

For many students, the abrupt transition to remote learning during the Spring 2020 semester was also a challenge. Pacita Del Balso (sophomore) said she enjoyed her first year as a student and thus found it hard to complete the rest of the semester from home. As a result, she said she decided not to enroll for the Fall 2020 semester and only recently made the decision to return in the spring.

“Being back at home was really difficult for me and I just got really depressed once I made that decision not to return in the fall,” Del Balso said. “I recently decided to return this upcoming spring because it was so far off and it was really crushing my vision for the future, just sticking your life on pause for a year.”

2020 was already a uniquely difficult year for the college community even before the transition to online learning in the spring semester, Heetderks said, with the loss of two Occidental students, Ilah Richardson and Jaden Burris, in January and February, respectively.

“Students were still reeling from grief when the pandemic became a reality and students were sent home in March,” Heetderks said via email.

In addition to Emmons, Disability Services is also a resource that provides a range of support for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, psychiatric and psychological disabilities and medical and physical disabilities. According to Masredjian, Disability Services has worked this semester to shift operations online and provide access for students seeking support or accommodations, such as testing and classroom accommodations.

“While we have a process for students to follow to request accommodations, we’ve always allowed for flexibility with these processes and we will work with students no matter how they reach us,” Masredjian said via email.