Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced so many dramatic changes in their lives, college students faced serious mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders and addiction. In fact, experts and researchers use terms like “epidemic” and “crisis” to characterize the mental health challenges currently facing American college students.
According to 2018 and 2019 student surveys from the American College Health Association, about 60% of respondents felt “overwhelming” anxiety, while 40% experienced depression so severe they had difficulty functioning. These statistics, which do not consider the current pandemic or increased tensions surrounding racial justice, are a warning to higher education about the well-being of our students.
Given the current environment, college students will undoubtedly need to rely on support from their intuitions surrounding emotional and over all well-being. But will they reach out when they need to?
“The stigma of seeking help for mental health issues, as well as the stigma of having mental health needs remain a problem at Mason as well as universities throughout the U.S.,” said Jennifer Kahler, director of Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at George Mason University.
Part of the problem, Kahler said, is that many students feel embarrassed or ashamed when it comes to discussing their personal struggles. In addition, students are busy and feel as though they do not have time to seek counseling.
“[Students] often have a misconception that they only should seek help when or if their problems are severe, not realizing seeking help earlier can often prevent the issues from becoming more severe,” she said.
Kahler noted that, with the closing of campus in March, many students are currently living with and receiving support from family members or seeing a health care provider at home. But she is highly aware that some students do not have that same support network.
“My biggest concerns [right now] are social isolation, anxiety, depression and relationship stressors,” she said.
In response to the Mason students who find themselves in need of mental health support during this pandemic, CAPS offers its health services virtually, which includes individual counseling, crisis intervention, case management, psychiatric services, workshops and group therapy. Afterhours crisis services are also available.
The services are available either by phone or by a HIPAA-compliant, encrypted video platform. Most CAPS staff are licensed mental health providers; however, CAPS is also a training site for doctoral-level interns and externs who are under the supervision of a licensed staff member.
At the moment, the center does not provide peer-to-peer services, but according to Kahler, “[CAPS] recognizes that this is an effective and well-received way to extend the reach of counseling services. We have actively explored different supervised peer-to-peer models, and hope that we can implement such a model in the future.”
Students shouldn’t worry about cost or privacy as CAPS is a free and confidential service.
“CAPS services are highly confidential, and by law, we do not report crimes to the police or campus partners except under very specific and limited circumstances,” Kahler said. “If a student has experienced or is experiencing interpersonal violence, we will discuss different options the student can pursue and support them in doing so, with their written permission.”
While the university moves forward with its plans to return to campus, students are encouraged to contact CAPS for virtual services or referrals.
“My main goal is to make sure that students know we are open and here for them,” she said.
Students who would like to speak with a CAPS clinician should call 703-993-2380 or visit the CAPS website for more information.