A Student’s Perspective on the Mental Health Crisis Facing College Students
*Elsa Romero, BehaVR’s incredibly talented graphic design intern, is a senior at Wheaton College, a small liberal arts college located in Wheaton, Illinois. In observance of Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ve asked her to share what it’s like being a student in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the course of my three almost four years in college there is not a day that goes by that I don’t have to remind myself why I am in college and why I should stay in college. Whether it is the stress of classes, the worries about how to pay for tuition this month, or the anxiety of attending college during a pandemic, there’s rarely a day that I don’t question why I chose to attend college. There are times when I am doing too much and just cannot physically or mentally function anymore. I jokingly said to my roommate a few days ago that the first thing I think about when I wake up is when I can go back to sleep. But honestly, after talking to my friends and peers here at school and reflecting on mental health awareness week, I think this really highlights the mental health crisis affecting college students now. We are worn out, point blank, period. Worn out physically and mentally.
As a senior in college, I have gone through my fair share of the ups and downs of college life. There are so many things about going to college and starting this transition into adulthood and independence that can be overwhelming, both mentally and physically. When I was in high school, I at least had family and friends that I knew and grew up with for support. But college is a whole new ballgame that, frankly for a lot of students including myself, can be overwhelming and very impactful, sometimes negatively, on mental health
Going to college is such a new experience, one in which you are very much just thrown into the deep end of life. There was a lot that I had to navigate: making friends, figuring out how to pay for tuition, keeping up my grades, feeding myself, choosing the “right” career, and unfortunately taking care of myself and my mental health was often left at the bottom of the list, right next to sleep. For me and a lot of people I know, this imbalance between a social life, school, work and mental health can go on for only so long before you crash and burn. I have experienced this crash and burn many times in my college career, and while I wish I could say that I have experienced it less as my college years have gone on, I sadly cannot. It has become pretty normal for me to ask my friends and peers how they are doing and to hear replies like “not great,” “I feel so overwhelmed,” “I only slept two hours last night,” “I’m really tired,” “I’ve been having anxiety attacks all day.” And honestly I have also replied similarly to the same question being asked of me.
Speaking for myself and my peers, I can honestly say that we are not doing well. We are constantly doing so much that we barely have time to give our bodies what they need to keep going, let alone think about our mental health status. I have to set constant reminders to go to bed before 12am, to eat three meals a day and to regularly drink water and I even know a few people who have to set an alarm for a restroom break. What I think has happened is that we’ve ended up putting our mental health and physical health at risk for the sake of academia and the pressure to succeed. The pressures put on us from parents, professors, society, and even ourselves to succeed, I think, have been the largest contributors to this decline in mental health for college students. What I think is even more of an issue is how desensitized college students are to this crisis – it has actually become integrated into college life culture. I don’t think twice if someone I know says they are thinking about dropping out of college, or that they are feeling so stressed they could start crying, or that they are struggling with a mental illness. This has gotten even worse since the pandemic started.
At first a few weeks of online classes sounded great, doing school from the comfort of my own bed sounded awesome. No need to turn on my camera, I just get up and go. But as time went on, so did COVID, and the changes that came with attending college during a pandemic impacted my mental health in ways that I didn’t even know were possible. Doing classes online made learning all that much harder for me. I definitely did not function well learning from a talking head on a screen. It was harder to pay attention, and harder to engage with my professor and peers via a screen. At the end of my day, I felt totally and completely drained mentally and physically. My desire to be with other people coupled with the fear of getting or giving COVID to my parents or others were always at odds with each other. I so desperately wanted to be back in the classroom, but when I was there I could hardly focus because I would be so worried about who is wearing their mask properly, or who isn’t social distancing. It really took a toll on me and a lot of people I know. The desire to be with others but the desire to also keep them safe by staying away from them was and still is really hard to navigate. This new worry, coupled with the already many worries and challenges that college students face was just icing on the cake of our mental health problems.
Since the pandemic started I’ve seen my own decline in mental health at various times and so I have tried to implement small changes in my routine that help me to cope better. My roommates and I try to have dinner once a week together so that we are intentional about catching up and spending time together that doesn’t have school or studying involved. We also try to spend every Friday evening together and do something relaxing or fun…one night where we don’t do homework or study, and we can just destress from the week. We might watch a movie or play a board game, or bake something together. It has been great to make intentional time planned into my week to not focus or worry about school, work or other things. These changes have been great, but I still spend most days feeling burnt out, and still wake up thinking about when I can go back to sleep.
College is a very unique and taxing experience that can make or break you, but instead of leaving it there, we should continue to work towards finding better ways to prevent breaking students and promote ways of making them better. This includes bringing awareness to the current mental health status of college students and finding better ways to support and help us.