Section: Features

Pandemic puts strain on students’ mental health

Pandemic puts strain on students’ mental health

Content warning: This article discusses mental health, anxiety, ADHD and eating disorders. ProtoCall is available 24/7 for crisis support.

Note: The views of the following students do not necessarily reflect those of all students currently struggling with mental health.

Most students — most people, for that matter — probably find that a worldwide pandemic and extended social distancing has taken a toll on their physical and mental health. Those Kenyon students with preexisting mental illnesses have found facing these stressors especially challenging.

Since transitioning to online classes, the College has scrambled to adapt mental health resources to unprecedented circumstances. Although the Cox Health and Counseling Center began providing telemental health services to in-state students, licensure stipulations have prevented them from offering these services to students currently residing outside of Ohio, according to Associate Director of Counseling Holly Baker. Last week, however, the College began offering Talkspace, a mobile app and online platform for telemental health services.

Shara Morgan ’20 and Nafeez Ishmam Ahmed ’23, both of whom are currently living on campus, agree that the caliber of Talkspace, aside from the absence of a synchronous conversation, more or less matches that of the Counseling Center. “For the most part, it’s just a therapist you can text five days a week,” Morgan said.

Ahmed said that while access to counseling is difficult, he has primarily struggled with access to medication. He was diagnosed with ADHD only a couple months ago. “The timing of it was very, very difficult,” Ahmed said. “[Initially] my psychiatrist told me he would call me and then prescribe me the medication, but everything changed after [COVID-19] came.” Ultimately, Ahmed had to withdraw late from a course due to illness. “It’s just not possible for me to concentrate because there are different stressors,” he said. “You can try your best to control your learning environment, and it does increase your odds of being productive, but [without medication], [it’s taken] a lot of exploring options to see what I could do to make the most of the situation.”

Ahmed is not the only student struggling to complete the semester online as changing circumstances impact his mental health. A senior from New Jersey, who will be called Kayla to protect her identity, said that her recent decision to seek inpatient treatment for an eating disorder has jeopardized her chances of graduating in just two weeks. Due to her rapid weight loss and reduced heart rate, her doctor has requested that she admit herself to the hospital, where she must stay until she is cleared for a residential program. She is unsure whether this will allow her to complete her coursework.

Although she has been working with professors to wrap up her classes more quickly, Kayla noted that doing so can be awkward and frustrating.

“It’s embarrassing because you sort of open up, and you put it out there and say, ‘I need you to work with me, because I have this problem.’” She said that professors do not always understand the severity of her eating disorder, making it difficult to seek accommodations.

Celina German ’21, an on-campus mediator, said that she and other individuals have been working since the transition to online classes to try and ease this disconnect between students and professors. The Ombuds Office offers separate meetings for faculty and staff, mostly to help the College find a balance between a continued quality of education and empathy for many challenges of completing classes online. She explained that professors often struggle to find a balance between recognizing the challenges their students might be facing during the pandemic and ensuring the quality of education they had paid for. She noted that speaking with professors through Ombuds Office Hours and in her classes was very humanizing. “They look different, they smile differently,” she said, “and so it’s been very fascinating as I kind of assist them as they assist me.”

Morgan has observed that professors themselves seem to be struggling mentally as well. “What’s the point of pretending to teach and be taught when really what we both want is to love and be loved, and be comfortable, and feel okay right now?’”

Although students like Morgan find it difficult to value and prioritize school work during such a stressful time, others find academic responsibilities to be an immense help. Jesse Leener ’22 said that she often struggles to find the motivation to log into her synchronous classes, “Ultimately, I think that that is the only thing that has really helped me … I’m happ[y] to be talking to people and seeing people’s faces or just sitting there and watching other people talk,” she said.

Kenyon students struggling with their mental health believe that losing their in-person support networks has been the hardest aspect of learning from home. Leener said that, while on campus, she usually spends time with friends when she runs into them on Middle Path, or otherwise texts them briefly to make plans. German explained that even having strangers around on campus was grounding.

“If I was falling at any point, or if I was concerned, I knew that I had almost a social accountability either [to] show up the class [or] make sure I look presentable, [and] my friends would check in with me.” She said that without that social accountability, unpleasant thoughts regarding anxiety and trauma have manifested much more strongly. Kayla echoed this sentiment. “At school, just you know who you are and [have] sort of an audience for that,” she said. At home, “all of a sudden you have no audience.” For Kayla, a treatment program with other girls seemed like the best way to regain this audience. Changing her habits is easier in a treatment program than at home because, while programs give residents activities to occupy their time between meals, “right now, at home with just my mom and my sister, how am I going to distract myself [while improving my eating habits]?”

Although many students find that social isolation is exacerbating their mental health, it is often difficult for those the Collegian spoke with to reach out to friends. Leener said that her social anxiety coupled with her general distaste for texting has made it difficult to stay connected. “It’s hard for me to reach out because I feel like it’s weird to text people just random[ly],” she said. “I’ve definitely been more distant than I usually would be like in person.” She said that distancing herself has been especially hard on her mental health due to the fact that she is an only child.

Aside from the reasoning that “nobody wants to be on their phones all the goddamn time,” according to Morgan, “Most of my friends who would be part of my support system are all doing badly,” they said. “Everybody is suffering.”

Ahmed said that while living on campus, being able to see other students in Peirce Dining Hall while picking up meals has been a huge help to him. “There are many students left on campus … So in that way, I’ve been stuck here, but it doesn’t feel as stuck as I thought it would.”

German is living with her parents and said that she has turned to them for support with her anxiety. One newfound habit has been seeking out her mom for a hug whenever it becomes overwhelming. “My mom and I are very independent souls, and we’re not the most clingy,” she said, “but I think that’s something I’ve been trying to lean into, [that] it’s okay to lean on someone.” Morgan said that they feel fortunate to have their emotional support animal with them. “Whenever I’m sad or anxious, I put [my cat] on my belly,” they said. “He purrs, and we fall asleep together.”

Although students have found new, informal support networks in their currently isolated lifestyles, they hope to see formal resources continue to grow. Leener suggested a new platform for students to connect online about their challenges with mental health. “I just feel like a lot of us are probably feeling the same way,” she said. “It’s easy for us to retreat, [so] I think that it would be really helpful to have some sort of way to engage with each other without feeling pressure to do so.”

That being said, German stressed the need to encourage students to utilize online resources in the first place. “There’s a lot that happens between the click and actually when you start presenting yourself in a conference,” she said. “How do you reach people [for] whom it might be already a huge achievement to actually attend to make that click?”

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