To say this past year has been stressful would be an understatement. The mental health of students has been particularly strained due to anxiety about midterms, the upcoming election, the impending winter months and the ongoing pandemic. COVID-19 distancing guidelines have transformed social spaces and disrupted many coping strategies upon which students depend. While the Counseling Center and Office of Residential Life have created opportunities for students to seek help during the pandemic, many students feel their academic workloads have not been adjusted for the compounding stressors this year has brought.
Vassar’s mental health professionals have seen first-hand the impact COVID-19 has had on students’ emotional wellbeing. “Although Vassar students are very resilient, students are struggling with increases in anxiety and dysthymic mood, and feelings of boredom and loneliness, similar to the general population,” explained Director of Psychological Services Wendy Freedman. Director of Health Promotion and Education Andrea Pesavento also expressed concern about students being isolated. “Students do not have the same opportunities to meet, gather and socialize in large groups in person,” she commented. “This limits the possibilities to meet new friends and peers that potentially creates a different level of connection.”
For students facing mental health challenges, the Counseling Center is offering teletherapy programming. Freedman explained that while she and other counselors were nervous about switching to a telecounseling platform, virtual meetings have not prevented students from successfully using their services. “Some students seem to be less inhibited in their sessions and are finding themselves engaging in deeper work,” she shared. The Campus Activities Office provides unoccupied rooms for students with privacy concerns to use for teletherapy.
One student, who asked to remain anonymous, shared that teletherapy through the Counseling Center has been beneficial. “I have been able to see my therapist biweekly via Zoom, and I appreciate the time that I spend with her,” the student said. While the student wishes they could meet every week and for longer sessions than 45 minutes, they understand Vassar has limited resources.
Students have pointed to their academic assignments as a common source of stress. While many professors adjusted their syllabuses last semester after going remote, most students have found their current workload to be similar to any other semester. “It’s very hard for me to simultaneously work on my OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and anxiety symptoms while feeling overwhelmed with school work,” commented Lucie Bisbee ’22.
Nicholas Weiner ’22 shared that doing classes virtually has made his ADHD symptoms more pronounced. “Zoom classes have made it incredibly difficult to concentrate,” he explained. While some of his professors have significantly decreased workloads, the lack of October break and heavy workloads in other classes have made this semester stressful. “Ideally, I feel that the administration would give professors more specific suggestions to moderate workload,” he said.
Freedman has noticed many students putting undue pressure on themselves to be as motivated as they would be during usual semesters. “Vassar students are high achieving and often expect themselves to perform at their typical level, even though they are in the midst of navigating incredibly difficult circumstances,” she said. She reminds students to be self-compassionate and acknowledge the unique difficulties this semester presents.
Vassar Student Association (VSA) Senators recently designed a survey to garner responses on the discrepancy many students feel between what’s expected of them academically this semester and their psychological bandwidth. “Many of us and our friends have been experiencing burnout, stress and other difficult mental health challenges this semester,”commented VSA Senator Xan Wolstenholme-Britt ’22. He added that the anonymous survey, sent out to students on Sunday, Oct. 25, will be used to help the VSA draft a letter to Vassar faculty encouraging them to better accommodate students’ anxieties and create a healthier academic environment.
First-years, who are tackling an unprecedentedly challenging transition to college, rely on the Office of Residential Life to direct them to mental health resources if needed. House Teams have been trained with the expectation that students would be dealing with unique mental health challenges.
“In ResLife, our professional staff and the House Teams have been encouraged to incorporate the existence of [COVID-19] on a person’s mental health into our daily interactions,” said Director of Residential Education Michael Drucker. Drucker emphasized that Student Fellows are especially vital to the first year experience. “Our Student Fellows have been trained to perform more frequent, more in-depth check-ins with the first-years knowing the kind of barrier COVID safety guidelines can, unfortunately, create for social bonds,” he explained.
Despite safety barriers to human connection, plenty of college programming is available for interested students. “In addition to individual and group counseling, the Counseling Service is offering a virtual walk-in-clinic, workshops, conversation hours, and support spaces,” said Freedman. The Counseling Center opened a new virtual “walk-in” clinic where students can have a 30 minute same day consultation with a counselor. Appointments can be scheduled by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. They also launched a new interactive tool called Therapy Assistance Online (TAO). This platform offers practical strategies and advice for students dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. There are also conversation hours hosted by the Counseling Center in Collaboration with other offices in the college.
The Office of Health Promotion and Education is hosting in-person events outdoors and conversations over Zoom in hopes that this can foster community among students. The Spook-tacular Stroll on Oct. 31 will offer trick-or-treating and walks around campus. The Social Distancing Workshop will be on Nov. 10, and will give students a chance to discuss the psychological toll of social distancing and learn healthy strategies to combat feelings of loneliness.
As the on-campus part of the semester comes to a close, the Vassar community is reminded that these mental health challenges will not dissipate suddenly. “I don’t think we have collectively and communally taken enough time to meaningfully process the societal-level of grief we’ve experienced due to COVID, and that’s partly because it isn’t over yet,” explained Drucker.
Yet even though the semester has felt demanding, many students remain hopeful. “I am grateful for the creative ways we’ve been able to connect with each other on campus,” shared Bisbee. “I just keep reminding myself it won’t be this way forever.”