On the Portland State University campus last week, things were much like they were before the pandemic. Students walked through the downtown blocks of Southwest Park bundled up against the chilly final weeks of the fall term. Inside the buildings, people took their final exams or studied for them.
Although the campus and classrooms may look like life before COVID-19 arrived, students and administrators say that’s not really the case. Many students are still impacted by the pandemic in terms of social and emotional well-being and mental health.
At a vaccination event at the Native American Student and Community Center on the PSU campus, Grace Johnson hands out free stickers, condoms and brochures about the university’s counseling services.
Johnson is part of PSU’s Wellness and Health Action Team — or WHAT — a group of undergraduate students who work with the Center for Health and the Student Council as mentors and educators.
“I love connecting people with counseling services,” Johnson said. “I always feel happy that I at least pointed someone in the right direction, because when I was looking for advice a few years ago, the hardest part was just setting the date.”
Johnson started taking counseling in high school. She said the experience made her more comfortable accessing counseling services from PSU when she badly needed them during her sophomore year, when the pandemic pushed courses and operations from the person-to-person campus online.
She says her own personal experience of accessing mental health resources helps her encourage other students to do the same.
“It helps me be more empathetic and understanding,” Johnson said. “I think with lived experiences comes more nuanced understanding and less black and white thinking… It adds a layer of understanding and comfort to students.”
According to the Center for Health and Student Council at PSU, more and more students have scheduled counseling appointments as the pandemic has continued.
“This past academic year, we have had an increase in the number of unique students who have accessed counseling services,” said SHAC Director Marcy Hunt, “and I expect that number to continue to grow. ‘increase for the current academic year.’
Hunt says the student health center is working hard to hire more therapists to meet this increased need.
Colleges and universities across the country are also seeing an increased need among students for mental health services.
According to a national Mental Health Study, which surveyed approximately 350,000 students across the country, in the 2020-2021 school year, more than 60% of students met the criteria for one or more mental health conditions. This is an increase of almost 50% compared to 2013.
Hunt said PSU students have access to counseling to address issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship issues and difficulty concentrating on academic work.
The bustle is back, but some students still feel disconnected
University administrators OPB spoke with across the Portland area noted a sense of students feeling disconnected on campus, even as pandemic-related restrictions are lifted and in-person events resume.
That’s what PSU student Johnson sees.
Even as the number of students seeking advice has increased, Johnson said she and her fellow mentors have had fewer students at the WHAT table at campus events this year.
Johnson said she wasn’t sure why, but she suspected the students felt disconnected.
“People kind of go back to school or finish school and…they’re just like, ‘Okay, I’m just trying to get to class,'” she said. “‘I’m not trying to do an activity with this random girl from the health center.'”
Johnson said students seem less interested in participating in campus activities than before the pandemic. She relates to that. She is in her final year at PSU, completing a degree in public health.
“Honestly, I struggled to find relationships in college and have a strong group of friends…and I think that had to do with me being very isolated during COVID and during those kinds of times. formative years in college,” Johnson said. “And then now, like this year and last year, I’m just kind of like, ‘ok, well, I’m just working to graduate at this point.’ I don’t have the time or necessarily the need to go to every orientation event.
This is not the case for all students. According to Oregon students and university administrators contacted by OPB, there are still plenty of people who are excited to return to in-person events.
But, it’s clear that the pandemic has had a lasting effect on many students, as evidenced by more students accessing counseling services — and fewer students living on campus in Portland State.
As of fall 2019, before the pandemic, over 1,900 students lived on the PSU campus. That number dropped by more than half in the first year of the pandemic to 838 students living on campus in fall 2020.
That number has gone back up, but not where it was before the pandemic. As of fall 2021, there were 1,641 students in on-campus housing. This fall, that number dropped slightly to 1,619.
Mental health for the next generation: ‘We don’t know if it’s going to be okay’
Some administrators say social anxiety has been particularly prevalent among students who spent the latter part of high school online due to the pandemic. They missed in-person milestones like prom and graduation, and may have started college online as well.
Johnson says she sees a difference among the young people in her life.
“I’m 22. I’m graduating in the spring of 2023, and people my age are kind of the last category of people who had some kind of college snippet before COVID,” Johnson said.
“There’s just been such a shift in socialization, the way people socialize,” she said. “It’s so hard to get Gen Z to be happy or to be like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be okay,’ because we literally don’t know if it’s gonna be okay.”
Johnson said talking about mental health and mental illness has become more normalized during the pandemic, and there are pros and cons to that.
“The normalization of mental illness has become such a big conversation, but because it’s been talked about so much, it’s almost become an identity for people,” Johnson said. “I had times in my mental health journey where my depression was so much a part of who I was that when I started to feel better, I wanted to go back to my depression, because I didn’t know anything better. .”
Hunt, director of the Center for Student Health and Counseling, said it’s a common challenge for students struggling with mental health issues — not just depression, but conditions like anxiety, ADHD and mental disorders. food.
“The good news is that treatment (therapy/medication management) works by increasing a person’s ability to manage or cope with depressive symptoms so that they have a greater ability to connect or reconnect with these other parts of its core identity,” Hunt said.
Johnson said WHAT explores the intricacies of mental illness and health in its interactions with students. In addition to organizing events, the team strives to reach out to students in various ways, such as through workshops, a podcast and social media posts dedicated to student welfare.
“We want to be able to communicate with students on a peer-to-peer basis because for many people, especially when it comes to helping, it can be intimidating to go to a professional or someone more older than you and asking for advice,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she and her colleagues recently held a workshop on resilience. They emphasized finding ways to reframe stressful situations in a positive way, such as failing a test or missing an important deadline for an assignment.
“It’s going to suck in the moment,” Johnson said. “But you also have to learn – you have to have skills to accept things and move on.”
She hopes students will learn these skills by accessing help when they need it.
“I don’t know if it will get better, but hopefully it will,” Johnson said. “I hope that’s the case for people my age and people younger than me. I see the light for us.