It’s not that Jordan Kennedy gets emotional talking about the stress of 2020. The words don’t run together; the voice doesn’t get louder. But what’s noticeable is that an hour into the conversation, he’s still going.
His sister lives in New York, where some of the grimmest images of the pandemic played out. His hometown of Burnsville, Minnesota, is just minutes from where George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Even the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha didn’t seem far away, sparking protests across the state.
“Literally, for a person of color, these are matters of survival,” said Kennedy, a junior studying finance and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
On campus, he helped found a student group called the Black, Indigenous, People of Color Coalition to bring the concerns of students of color to the UW-Madison community. He’s organized marches and pushed for action from the student government.
And he’s tried to be more productive in class, because the online coursework seems to require more diligence. At times, he’s torn between trying to improve his community and improve his grades. He’s already dropped his Spanish minor.
Kennedy said he has struggled to maintain mental wellness. Anxiety? Depression? Stress? Shades of all of them, he said.
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Students always have built-in potential challenges — homesickness, academic expectations, roommate problems, experimentation.
But since the pandemic hit, young adults, many of them college students, have reported increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, stress and loneliness.
Between April and June, when the coronavirus first spread, rates of anxiety and depression increased substantially across the U.S., with 41% of adults reporting at least one adverse behavioral or mental health condition by the end of June, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, 10.7% of people surveyed by the CDC reported they had seriously considered suicide within the past 30 days.
Those percentages spiked for adults between the ages of 18 to 24. Three-fourths of 18 to 24-year-olds said they had at least one adverse mental health symptom, and 25.5% said they had seriously considered suicide. That’s one in four, and mental health experts say those numbers likely picked right back up this semester.
The reasons vary.
More students and families are asking for financial aid, if not putting off college altogether, because they or their families have lost income.
Online classes pose a new and, some say, exhausting challenge, as hours of lectures and quizzes and discussion sections stack up. Look away for a moment, and it’s a scramble to catch up. Many report struggling with motivation and focus.
During what is normally the most social time of a young adult’s life, students are spending a lot of time alone. There are few memories being made if students aren’t meeting new and different people, going to parties and campus events, playing or watching sports.
“All the things that were impacting our students before have continued during COVID, but some have been exacerbated,” John Achter, student behavioral health coordinator at the UW System, said.
Mental health officials report hearing from students who feel all but trapped in their apartments, a kind of malaise setting in as one day runs into another and weekends become all but irrelevant. They’re losing out on the college experience they wanted and looking ahead to a world that isn’t particularly appealing right now. With winter drawing near, more darkness is setting in.
Kennedy said he looked into UW-Madison’s mental health services at the start of the pandemic, but ended up not going because the provider he wanted wasn’t available at the time.
Activism has helped and hurt his frame of mind. In the moment, it feels productive and empowering. But after a long protest or discussion with other activists, all the other demands in his life come roaring to the fore.
“It’s just everything is more extreme,” he said.
‘More demand than we can provide’
Data from UW System schools indicates the number of students seeking mental health services was already on the rise before the pandemic hit. Between the 2015-16 school year and the 2019-20 school year, counseling center use across the system rose 15%.
That need comes as many campus counseling centers, in the UW System and beyond, are facing staffing shortages and budget constraints. And now, counselors everywhere are trying to figure out how to reach and impact struggling students in a mostly virtual format.
“I’m thinking of the metaphor of drinking water from a fire hose,” said Carrie Fleider, director of university counseling services at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The center is one of the most understaffed in the UW System and has been for years, according to system data.
“We’re currently hiring,” Fleider said. “But, there’s always going to be more demand than we can provide, especially when we’re so understaffed.”
UW-Parkside, with nearly 4,500 students, has the equivalent of two full-time mental health providers for the entire campus, said Reneè Sartin Kirby, director of student health, counseling and disability services. Over the past three years, demand has increased 18%, which the staff has met by eliminating some outreach activities.
Staff size limits counseling centers from serving students beyond clinical support and at times means triaging student cases based on their severity. Centers are limited in their ability to provide other offerings, like general mental wellness programs or broad screenings of the student body that help find people who might be struggling.
Counselors — many who have worked for years and are deeply dedicated to helping college students — face burnout as centers have struggled with recruitment.
The challenges of this year are personal to the staffs, too. Sartin Kirby lost a brother to COVID-19. There are staff and students who live in Kenosha, where the Blake shooting and subsequent violence and unrest occurred.
Funding for mental health treatment is one of the UW System’s top state budget priorities this year — and some are starting to talk about continuing virtual offerings after the pandemic. They’re also bringing attention to rules that prevent their students from getting care.
With the pandemic pushing most centers to a virtual only-format, campuses with large out of state populations are having trouble reaching students who went home, and licensing laws vary from state to state. UW-Parkside is in the process of getting a counselor certified in Illinois so it can serve students while they’re at home.
Multiple pandemics going on at once
Counselors across the state agreed that the Black Lives Matter movement and public reckoning over broader issues of racial inequality this year have made the need for hiring counselors of diverse backgrounds crucial.
“We’re actually living in multiple pandemics,” UW-Milwaukee’s Fleider said. “The political and social justice/racial justice work that needs to be done is enormous in this country and it absolutely impacts everyone.”
The task is easier for large, urban universities. UW-Madison has five counselors who specialize in working with students of color.
But some smaller campuses are making progress.
At UW-Parkside, which in the 2019-20 school year had the worst student-to-counselor ratio in the UW System, an investment in hiring providers of color paid off, as students of color have slowly begun seeking services at rates that mirror the portion of the student body they represent. Many of the school’s students come from the Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee areas.
Even universities that are relatively well-staffed face challenges with their own wellness and morale. And the stakes are high.
At UW-Oshkosh, Sandra Cox, director of the counseling center, said the school has seen students coming in with greater levels of anxiety and, as the pandemic wore on, depression. More students struggling with “deep loneliness” and, at the most extreme, thoughts of suicide.
“We don’t have the grace to have a bad day,” Cox said. “We carry that heavy weight of responsibility of working with students every day who have thoughts about ending their life, who have behaviors around that. We take that all so seriously that at times, that does become a heavy thing to carry.”
Professionals across the state said their centers were the only places some students could go to get mental health resources. Students lack insurance coverage to seek outside help, and smaller cities can also lack off-campus counselors that cater to a particular demographic.
Brenda Lenz, interim director of Marquette University’s counseling center, said it might be a good thing that the pandemic is bringing to light all of the challenges students face in getting the proper care on and off-campus. With 15 counselors, even her relatively well-staffed team has limitations.
“College students have very significant mental health issues sometimes, and college counseling centers can provide a little bit, but they don’t provide specialized, long-term care,” Lenz said.
Working to support the family
In the past seven months, UW-Milwaukee senior Nicola Hinnawi has fought through grief, financial instability and relentless uncertainty in the quest to become the first in his family to earn a degree.
Hinnawi, 22, is in his final semester studying supply chain operations and management with a second major in marketing.
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin, both UWM and the restaurant where Hinnawi worked shut down. The school returned in a remote format. The job — which he needed to help his mother pay bills — did not. And his father, in the third year of battling cancer, was deteriorating.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to sit around for a month waiting for unemployment,’ ” he said.
He got in touch with a temp agency, which placed him in a factory job. The work was physically grueling and he was one of the youngest workers there. He put his head down and kept working.
On April 13, his father died.
Hinnawi took a couple of weeks off work, but kept up with his school assignments and received some accommodations from professors. The funeral was small; COVID-19 prevented friends and much of the family, including his father’s mother, from attending.
“I’ve never ever had to experience a funeral before,” Hinnawi said. “So this was the first time I ever had to figure out the church, figure out the graveyard ceremony. Who should I call? How do I do things? How much is it going to cost me? That was the most stressful point in my life.”
Now, Hinnawi is back to working 30-to-35 hours a week at the restaurant while keeping up online with schoolwork and hunting for a post-graduate job. He admitted to feeling flustered and overwhelmed at times as he tries to manage everything on his plate. His goal is to just get through to graduation.
“I’m not going to lie to you, this might be the hardest semester of my life,” he said.
Hoping for post-traumatic growth
Counselors told the Journal Sentinel that whether a student comes to them or not, the hope is that people will come out of the pandemic with more resilience, kindness and a greater sense of community.
They remind their students about the importance of self-compassion.
“What we know about traumatic historical events is that the majority of people do come through it in a resilient fashion,” Achter said. “There’s actually a term for it in the literature called post-traumatic growth.”
This month, Danny Madonia, a senior studying organizational and professional communication at UW-La Crosse, shared the challenges he has faced battling major depression while in college with the UW System’s Board of Regents.
Last fall, prior to the pandemic, Madonia tried to kill himself twice. He was hospitalized once, started taking medication, got into campus counseling and eventually took the spring 2019 semester off.
“Honestly, if I was going through my dark time during this pandemic, I’d like to say I would get over it and have the same outcome, but honestly, I don’t know,” Madonia said. “I’m very fortunate to have the timing of my experience, because I could definitely see why this would make people go over the edge.”
The chaos of this fall semester was not lost on Madonia — he contracted COVID-19 at school — but he has been managing the stress of it all well. After the fall semester started, all his classes moved online due to a COVID-19 spike and he decided to move home to Illinois. But his advocacy, a consistent routine and the perspective from his past struggles have helped him maintain stability, and even thrive, in his little corner of the world.
“I tell myself to strictly live my life in the moment,” he said.
If you or a loved one are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 for 24/7 assistance.