The Other Pandemic: Student Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on student mental health, with anxiety and depression increasing significantly.

Julie Lash, director of IUPUI’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) since 2007, said that while depression and anxiety have been the most common concerns in students ahead of the pandemic, additional stressors have escalated feelings of distress.

Lash noted that students have not only been dealing with concerns that stem from the pandemic, but also factors regarding racial injustice, political instability, financial uncertainty and natural disasters.

“College students were already reporting increasing levels of loneliness before the pandemic,” Lash said. “That has increased with the physical distancing and social isolation that many have experienced during this time.”

Throughout 2020 and 2021, CAPS saw fewer students reaching out for sessions. Lash believes this is due to fewer students going to campus or living on campus. This semester, however, CAPS is back to seeing about the same levels of students as they did prior to the pandemic.

Lash encourages instructors to direct resources to their students and conduct individual check-ins with those who seem to be struggling emotionally or falling behind in their courses. Faculty can help reduce the stress and anxiety students may be experiencing by creating opportunities for students to connect with each other during class.

“We ask students how they heard of CAPS and the most common response is Faculty/Staff,” Lash said. “We meet regularly with faculty and staff groups to talk about how to support students that are distressed or having mental health concerns.”

One of the common issues CAPS sees with students is practicing methods of self-care. Eating and sleeping habits have been a process of readjustment for students.

“Most people like a bit of structure, and most of our typical structure was not present in the past 18 months,” Lash said.

Natalie Samuels, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founder of her private practice, Blue Willow Counseling, also saw a decline in students taking time to focus on self-care. Her patients had similar mental health concerns as those visiting CAPS. When the pandemic hit, she was surprised at how many students were reaching out to her practice, but it was a time of uncertainty for most.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, people came to me looking for answers that I didn’t have,” Samuels said.

Samuels, who is trained in post-traumatic stress disorder therapy, saw that the pandemic was a trigger for those she was treating.

“The pandemic triggered present day concerns in times in their past when they felt they weren’t safe,” Samuels said. “It brought up concerns about the death of a caregiver or fear of death for themselves.”

Samuels said that while it is easy for people to feel helpless surrounded by the pandemic and societal issues, she encourages students to invest in committed action. She suggests checking in on friends, family members, helping around the house, and volunteering. 

Other sources of self-help for stressed students can include using mental health apps, like MyLife Meditation, Simple Habit, Headspace, and Calm. Samuels said she uses them to relax and wind down. The apps, which are available for Apple and Android devices, aim to help users manage their daily habits through reflection, meditation and relaxation.

“I viewed the pandemic as a stone that’s been dropped in water, causing a ripple effect, leaving effects of this lingering for a while,” Samuels said. 

Samuels anticipates that despite lingering effects, current students will be the most resilient generation as a result of the hardships and obstacles faced during the pandemic.

Students interested in seeking mental health services can connect with CAPS by phone at (317) 274-2548 or email capsindy@iupui.edu. For off-campus services, check out the other providers lists on the CAPS web page.

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