Pandemic’s impact on mental health

Counselor shares her perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students’ mental health

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Anica Graney / CLARION

Student Success Services offers counseling for students.

Annika Vanderwerf , Contributor

More than one year after the COVID-19 quarantine began, let’s take a moment to reflect. Take a deep breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Unclench your jaw, stretch your neck, whatever you need to do to relax yourself at this moment.

It has been a year of reckoning, bringing our country’s ugliness into the spotlight. It was a year of loneliness and grief. It brought out the best and worst in people. All around, people are discussing racism, LGBTQ+ issues, health issues, and over all of these, mental health.

Ironically, one of the best impacts the stresses of the past year has been an emerging openness towards mental health in all its aspects: inter-generational trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, effects of bullying and discrimination, anxiety and depression. You name it, and people are talking about it. At least a lot of people are.

After all of that, it’s now recognized as “normal” to feel stressed, anxious and depressed.

Robyn Groth, an access specialist at UW–Madison for mental health resources and former therapist at Quest Counseling and Consultation Center in Madison, has been addressing the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health in the past year.

Groth mostly has experience with UW–Madison students, but also saw clients from Madison College and Edgewood College during her time at Quest, as have almost all of the other therapists there.

“[Students are] having a trauma response, in a lot of ways, and that’s something I’ve seen a lot with them: the fight flight and freeze response being activated. That’s going to impact our capacity and our bandwidth – we feel like we’re in this blender, like, ‘what the hell is going on?’,” she said.

The pandemic is different in terms of traumatic experiences, Groth said, in that it’s everywhere, all the time, and we kind of just have to wait it out. Ringing any bells? Maybe not.

Usually, when we talk about PTSD, (TRIGGER WARNING) we think about war veterans or sexual assault survivors. In recent years, another type of PTSD, called Complex-PTSD (or C-PTSD) was added to the DSM-5. C-PTSD results from “complex” trauma, that didn’t come from one specific event, rather a series of events over a longer period of time. Usually people with C-PTSD feel that they were (or literally were) unable to escape the traumatic environment that they were in. Sound familiar now?

Groth said it’s a fair parallel to draw, not just in the sense that we can’t snap our fingers and make COVID-19 disappear, but “also the way in which media and social media can heighten our trauma responses and our stress reactions, it’s just like information overload.”

Every single day there is more news, more cases, more deaths and more restrictions. It’s extremely difficult to get away from. Then on top of media-related information, most people are all spending their time inside and on Zoom calls.

“The Zoom fatigue is real,” Groth said, sighing, through her Zoom call interview with a student reporter, “and dread of online school, and then services that are intended to be supportive, telehealth even, is also on Zoom. So, it’s like ‘I’m gonna take these strides to take care of myself…and engage on a screen again.’”

Biologically and socially, humans are not designed for the Zoom life. As Groth noted, “We were designed to coregulate, like human body to human body.”

Thus, the way that people have been forced to function and continue with work and school is neglectful to their bodies and minds.

It’s not just the amount of time that people spend on screens or in their homes. A lot of the stress may come from where home is, who you are living with, and whether or not you can afford to keep living there or be able to eat.

“I’m working with a handful of LGBTQ+ students who have been forced to move back home, and home is not a safe place. They move into this survival mode, like ‘I just have to get through or I have to conceal parts of myself while I’m stuck at home or in an environment that’s not safe for me,’” Groth said.

She added that she has another client in her group therapy sessions who is unable to do telehealth appointments from home, because her roommate listens in and uses that confidential information against her.

These stressors and restrictions now facing college students across the country translates into missed milestones and missed relational connections. Students are not getting the same opportunities that they would have under normal circumstances that help them figure out their identity.

“I had some students who have decided to live alone just to have more safety,” Groth said.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-looming financial stress that so many college students and their families worry about even in normal times, that has become increasingly severe due to job insecurity from the pandemic.

Some students would have a job in a research lab, and they wouldn’t have a way to do that from home, and so they would be forced to just not get paid, and then they can’t pay their rent,” Groth said.

Students whose families are experiencing financial insecurity due to the pandemic are now able to access more funds through financial aid both at Madison College and UW–Madison, “but that’s more loans that they’re taking out, so that compounds the financial stress.”

Groth has also seen an increase in focus and attention related concerns at the UW especially.

“Students worry that they might have ADHD, and there are increased rates of folks talking about social anxiety, and difficulties entering back into spaces in society, loneliness, feeling disconnected…think of the mindset of students: hardworking, high-achieving, not accustomed to taking time off or seeking help,” she said.

Groth said that even once we do get “back to normal,” whatever that will be, that stress response isn’t going to go away overnight.

There is some good news, however.

Groth said students are lucky to be in a place like Madison.

“Not only do we have a lot of licensed providers in Madison and Dane county in general, but we also have some lower cost options too,” she said.

Many local counseling practices have programs that cost less for clients. At Quest, clinical interns are able to get more training and experience to boost their career, but as they are not yet licensed, sessions with them cost much less.

UW–Madison has a staff of 40 to 50 licensed therapists.

“It’s a really great team,” Groth said, “but we serve 48,000 graduate and undergraduate students, so it’s one therapist per thousand.”

She says demand has skyrocketed, and Groth has never had a single no-show since switching to telehealth.

At Madison College, students are all put in contact with an advisor, who can help them with academic and career questions, as well as getting students connected to counseling services either at the college or elsewhere. Contact information for counseling services at Madison College can be found at https://madisoncollege.edu/counseling-services. There is a diverse staff of seven therapists and counselors, whose bios are also provided on the counseling page on the Madison College website.

The website has a section reaching out specifically to the BIPOC student community regarding “recent episodes of overt racism in our communities and nationwide,” offering a safe and supportive space for them to process thoughts and feelings. Minority communities are already presented with higher rates of mental illness and were at higher risk of developing trauma-related mental health issues before the pandemic, and the events of the past year have only made things worse.

Groth said that, if there is anything we have learned about mental issues among students during pandemic, it is that “This might be a call to college administrators, or students or other people: we have to figure out systemic ways to find outlets for people to take care of themselves. It feels like we’re going to be at a place where it’s too late before we employ wellness initiatives that care for the whole person.”