By Stephanie Iancu
Being a college student can be challenging enough on its own, but the pandemic pushed the boundaries of mental health for many.
The pandemic has made for a challenging few years when it comes to students’ mental health. According to a study conducted among a group of 138 college students by the National Institute of Health, 71% indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors contributing to this phenomenon were identified; fear and worry about their and loved ones’ health, difficulty in concentrating, disruptions to sleeping patterns, decreased social interactions, and heightened concerns around academic performance.
“Most people felt impacted during the height of the pandemic, and some of those impacts have continued,” said Melanie Matson, director of the Healing and Advocacy Collective at Emerson College. “ One of the things I know about trauma, —and the research says this too—, is that these impacts aren’t necessarily right at a certain time. They are ongoing,” said Matson, who has been an advocate and prevention educator for more than 15 years.
For many students, the pandemic and its aftermath were what finally prompted them to seek professional help. But with therapy becoming increasingly difficult to access — be it because of the high costs or simply because many therapists are unable to take in new patients at the moment — many have been forced to find alternatives.
“I feel like your mental health shouldn’t be a cost-benefit analysis of whether or not you should get the help you need,” said Jessica Richards, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University in May 2023. “If you broke your leg, it wouldn’t be like ‘How much is that worth to me?’ You would never ask that.”
“We view not being able to heal your physical ailments as a really big injustice in society and I feel like we should look at that the same way with mental ailments,” she said, while acknowledging that access to health insurance also comes into play for many individuals when it comes to all forms of physical and mental care.
“I would love to go to therapy and I see it as a way to take a lot of weight off your back by speaking about things that happen or that you’re going through each week,” said Andrés Hernandez, a sports communications graduate student at Emerson College. “Then again, the cost of it for a student is not very affordable and even sometimes time can get in the way of projects, readings, and tasks during the semester.”
College officials and counselors have sought to help students navigate these tough times by offering them various types of on-campus resources in the hopes of getting them to speak more openly about their mental health and lean on their peers for support.
Matson said that they came to Emerson College to start the Healing and Advocacy Collective —a group aiming to offer confidential support and advocacy-based counseling for people impacted by power-based interpersonal violence— because many students had expressed that they did not feel sufficiently supported by the institution and had trouble accessing other mental health resources off-campus.
“I feel like I’m hearing more and more from folks that it’s been really challenging to find someone who is accepting new clients and who meets the various parameters that they’re looking for. So it’s definitely a very serious issue, which I think is quite telling because the Boston area is quite well-resourced. We have a lot of therapists and we have a decent amount of training around trauma-informed approaches for therapists, and still, all of these therapists are booked,” they said.
Matson also emphasized the need for more holistic approaches to mental well-being such as body-based therapies, art therapy and community healing initiatives, which have been proven to improve mental well-being among patients with trauma-related mental health conditions. They also said that the team had found that a lot of students connected particularly well with their healing yoga sessions and creative expression workshops.
“Folks really find those to be useful because they can be focused on the activity but also have a sense of doing something in community that feels pretty powerful,” they said.
Some students also took the initiative of volunteering with on-campus mental health support groups or sometimes even starting their own if they noticed that there was a need within the student community meeting to be fulfilled.
Mackenzie Harrison, a Boston University Law student, was part of a group named Haven that offered support to Colgate University students having survived sexual assault, which is where she attended undergraduate school. The organization works together with counselors to provide students with a place to speak openly and confidentially about their experiences.
“We were able to be names and faces out there whom you could talk to who did not have any other obligations,” she said, referring to how some students were worried about the repercussions of contacting the college directly and launching a Title IX investigation.
In 2022, Harrison was able to help organize a “teal” graduation event, which she described as a special event for graduating students who were also sexual assault survivors. The tradition of teal graduations had been started before the pandemic but had to be put on pause for a couple of years because of social distancing measures.
“That was just a really nice way to end the year. And to fully be back in person to the point where everyone could sit around the table and eat dinner together and celebrate the seniors who were graduating and who had, on top of being a survivor, also done college during the pandemic, and just overcome so many barriers,” she said.
Students have also been increasingly seeking out less traditional forms of therapy that take an alternative approach to mental well-being.
“I am having young adults seek me and other holistic therapists out because they are seeking more embodied treatment approaches,” said Deborah Rogers, a Boston-based holistic occupational therapist. “Often they continue with their therapist and add me as an adjunct. Other times, if they have done traditional therapy for a while, they move on to more holistic approaches to evolve their inner work.”
Rogers uses methods called craniosacral therapy and somatic experiencing that help relax the nervous system and enable emotional release. It involves accompanying patients through a dialogue with either a body part in pain or what they define as their inner child, helping them in getting more in touch with their body so that they can process emotions better. Rogers explained that the aim is to give each patient the tools to be able to independently self-regulate their nervous system in stressful situations.
“The main issue I have seen is anxiety, and considering that we are social beings, I think the lack of social connection has played into this. Also, people are experiencing their own anxiety as well as picking up on more collective anxiety from the news, social media, and just feeling it from others,” she said. “Their nervous systems are more unsettled and hyperaroused.”
But for those still seeking a more traditional form of therapy, there are options that they might not be aware of. For example, many young people are actually eligible for MassHealth, which requires no copay for insurance and gives access to community behavioral centers that offer non-urgent counseling appointments within two weeks and urgent and emergency appointments within 48 and 24 hours respectively. Many therapists will also offer their patients rates on a sliding scale based on their means and online therapy services such as BetterHelp are also on the more affordable side of the spectrum.
“I think students assume that MassHealth is for really low-income people, and I want to say that most college students are low-income because they’re going to school and probably working a full-time job on top of that,” said Jill Gichuhi, who is the Compass Helpline Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI is a nonprofit grassroots organization that seeks to advocate and provide resources to people living with mental health conditions and those close to them.
“There are definitely also a handful of practices around the state that also will say that they will take people and serve them even if they can’t pay. Catholic Charities is a big one and you don’t have to be catholic,” she said.
Gichuhi also said that more and more students are seeking out mental health resources that are more specifically tailored to them and their experiences as women or non-binary people, students of color, or members of the LGBTQI+ community.
“I think college students are an interesting group because they’re not kids,” she said. “But they don’t really want to throw themselves into support groups that are for adults with all these older people.”
Many students also found ways to care for their well-being that did not force them to incur any costs. Hernandez said that he increasingly turned toward consistent physical exercise, while Richards made sure to keep up with healthy daily routines even while she was confined to her home.
“I would have that one hour of the day where I wouldn’t have to think about studies or anything at all, even with my mask on or without it, just walking. And that would help,” said Netanya Pereira, a graduate student at Northeastern University, who found peace in her daily walks and talking about what she was going through with her family.
Pereira also said she was supportive of people who think of alternate ways to provide for themselves mentally beyond therapy because she believed that most people know what would work best for them the way she had done.
“Getting into a routine and talking to people, I realized that it is actually what helps with my anxiety,” she said. And I didn’t know it back then; it’s not like I searched it on Google or something and found out that this is what you do when you’re anxious. It just came intuitively to me and it worked.”