Facing a deepening pandemic, another stretch of mostly online classes and a national backdrop of political turmoil, Pittsburgh-area students are turning to their colleges — and to each other — to meet growing mental health needs.

Kayla Koch, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, said students were already struggling with the transition that college life brings, but the pandemic has made everything harder.

“The entire pandemic is a time of trauma,” Koch said. “We are all living through a trauma and expected to produce and exist as if we are not.”

She’s working to create a space for students to talk honestly about mental health.

“Our goal is to come into these meetings and say, ‘This is normal. Voice your struggles. Tell us what’s going on,’” Koch said of the DMAX Club, a national mental health advocacy organization with a Pitt chapter starting this semester under her leadership. “Maybe we’re going to be able to help. Maybe it’s just somewhere to vent. Maybe this is just, you know, that stress relief you need at the end of the week.”

Koch, 22, said a desire for a safe student space was a personal one that began three years ago when she first started at the university. Majoring in psychology and gender, sexuality and women’s studies, she realized that she felt incredibly anxious going into some classes. Issues of partner violence, consent and coercion triggered her.

“I was struggling with a lot of new mental health issues,” she said. “It was stuff I hadn’t really thought about before, but now I’m in a new environment with new expectations and suddenly everything is worse.”

Kayla Koch in front of the William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/Rtvsrece)

After finding a therapist, Koch said she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD. She wants to help the college experience be a little easier for other students, especially those who are struggling to find a supportive network. That’s become even more difficult in the pandemic.

As the spring semester begins, Pittsburgh-area colleges have responded to the pandemic by shifting their calendars and expanding COVID-19 testing. But one big issue colleges will have to tackle is an ongoing need for mental health resources.

Before the pandemic, colleges already had challenges with wait times and scheduling as students face the sometimes difficult transition to college life. Last spring, more than one in five college students said their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19, according to an Active Minds national survey of 2,086 college students. The three common mental tolls were stress or anxiety, disappointment or sadness, and loneliness or isolation.

Those common concerns were also noted by colleges around Pittsburgh, though the pandemic has upended how students get services.

“It’s too early in this different and challenging experience to fully understand how students are engaging Counseling Center services,” Pitt Counseling Center Director Jay Darr wrote in an email. “The preliminary data suggests that college counseling centers across the country are observing a 29% decrease in utilization, which varies by center.”

Colleges had to pivot services from mostly in person to online, said David Reetz, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. Building up telehealth and telemental health came with challenges.

Because states individually regulate therapy through licensing and pricing for services, colleges using telemental health services faced restrictions in reaching students across state lines.

“What a lot of places are doing is they’re offering case management services to those students, so helping them get connected with a mental health provider in their home state,” said Reetz, who is also the counseling director at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Students living on campus are typically more engaged in campus activities and student services than those who live off campus. With more students off campus during the pandemic, Reetz said the use of mental health resources has declined.

Other factors are fatigue from online learning and more reliance on established networks at home for students who are learning remotely. But Reetz added that students, so far, have been as satisfied with telemental health as in-person services.

Ian Edwards, the director of counseling services at Duquesne University, said students are dealing with isolation and loneliness as well as economic and academic challenges.

Duquesne is offering online workshops and remote counseling to try and help.

“We also want to have more of a presence in the classroom, facilitating wellbeing-related discussions and workshops,” Edwards wrote in an email.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers adapted services like teletherapy to help support students during the pandemic, according to Executive Director Shane Chaplin.

“We added a range of virtual spaces, including online workshops and ongoing weekly skill clinics on topics such as anxiety, sleep, self-compassion and mindfulness; connection spaces tailored to traditionally underrepresented groups — like international, Black and LGBTQ+ students — that could be experiencing increased isolation; support groups for various topics, including grief under COVID, home and family, and depression; and more traditional group therapy offerings,” Chaplin wrote in an email.

Chaplin noted that student use of traditional counseling services has declined from previous years.

Still, students are urging colleges to address mental health concerns. University of Pittsburgh Student Government President Eric Macadangdang said Pitt and other schools should work to help students get through the pandemic.

“If we don’t solve and address things right now, we’re going to have lingering effects and that all kind of ties back to the question about mental health,” he said.

Macadangdang said that the mental health needs of students should be addressed now to reduce challenges when college can resume in a more traditional manner.

“We are still going to have students who literally lived through almost a year-and-a-half traumatic event,” he said.

College clubs that promote mental health awareness are stepping up to fill the gaps.

At CMU, the Here for You club gives students a place of community. The club, which has held online meetings, offers discussions of mental health topics, promotes resources and works with university officials to elevate student voices.

Melvin Ofosu-Koranteng, a 20-year-old mechanical engineer junior, said having the club full of friends helped him because it meant “at least for me to have this little community.”

A man walks on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on March 27. In response to COVID-19, CMU has switched to remote learning for the remainder of the semester and encouraged all students to leave on campus housing if they're able to. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/Rtvsrece)
A man walks on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in March 2020. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/Rtvsrece)

The sentiment was echoed by another club executive member, So Young Jeon, a 22-year-old physics major at CMU.

“I’m living alone overseas technically, so I will also realize myself not talking to anyone at all during the day until we come to our Here for You meetings,” she said. ”For me, having this small community to come to and talk to people and check in was really important.”

Brandon Bohrer, the club’s vice president, emphasized that political turmoil such as the far-right insurrection at the U.S. Capitol also impacts mental health.

”As long as we live in an unjust and unfair society…that injustice is going to create and exacerbate mental health issues for people,” Bohrer said.

To help cope with events at the Capitol, Darr from Pitt’s counseling center recommended students unplug from social media, be mindful of how they feel, focus on rest and remaining healthy and connect with others to help process their feelings.

Kamakashi Sharma, 20, a Pitt junior and president of the campus chapter of Active Minds, said the spring semester will still have challenges as students try to find routine. The chapter has hosted virtual events throughout the fall semester to give students a space to talk openly with each other.

“I feel like there is this longing for community, but there’s also this idea of isolation and just wanting to withdraw and be on your own throughout the semester,” Sharma said. “Navigating those boundaries has been very difficult for students – me included – just understanding how much me-time is too much versus how much me-time is not enough.”

Officials and students emphasize that those going through mental health challenges are not alone.

“It’s about creating social connection,” Reetz said, “and being creative about creating social connection and opportunity to talk about difficult and complex social issues — creating space for both of those.”

Naomi Harris covers higher education at Rtvsrece, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at naomi@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent.

Mental health reporting has been made possible with funding by the Staunton Farm Foundation, but news decisions are made independently by Rtvsrece and not on the basis of donor support.

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Naomi Harris was the higher education reporter for Rtvsrece from November 2020 to October 2021 in partnership with Open Campus.