Coronavirus is a thief.
Some of the losses can be accounted for, with the data presented in painful clarity. More than 200,000 Americans died, 20 million jobs were lost, entire industries were destroyed.
Others are harder to follow – memories were missed, experiences never been had, relationships were not made. Although young people generally have less serious complications from COVID-19, some are still at high risk and the effects of isolation, fear, and loneliness hit young people hard.
At the University of Colorado Boulder, that looks like a surge in demand for mental health services on campus. Students try to adapt to changes in almost all areas of life, such as: Like attending class, hanging out with friends, and shopping for groceries. The spring's initial instinct for survival fades and the students struggle.
"The picture right now is different from March," said Monica Ng, director of counseling and mental health services at CU Boulder. “There is always this insecurity that scares our students a lot, feels lonely and isolated. They are unable to do what college students normally do and they cannot go out and do their regular activities and routines there is cause for concern. "
Classes are more difficult because professors are trying to balance the online format with more assignments and because being a person in 2020 is a mental and emotional burden.
This is the most difficult semester that Junior Roxana Pezeshki has experienced due to a landslide.
"My grades are falling, I'm completely isolated, I have so much homework all day that I can barely go outside for a walk, and I only take 13 credit hours," she said. "It feels like there's not much understanding and as much as I reach out for help, all I can do is get out."
But as stressful as the last eight months have been, CU bouldering students, lecturers and staff also see rays of light.
On-campus mental health providers can reach more students through virtual therapy sessions. Students like Junior Sudenaz Kiroglu have taken the pandemic out of isolation and decided to create a virtual community of hundreds of friends. Low-cost mental health services are provided through the Raimy Psychology Clinic, where CU Boulder PhD students offer therapy to students, staff, and community members.
There is also strength and hope to talk about the difficult things.
"A lot of us fight behind closed doors," said Pezeshki. "I've found through talking to friends that we all think that way, but we don't want to talk about it because we don't believe anyone else will. We don't want to be complainers, but I think there is a difference between complaining and support. "
Mental health needs to increase
Between 2019 and 2020, CU Boulder's counseling and mental health services saw nearly double the number of out-of-hours calls and behavioral medicine sessions early in the semester.
The department recorded 635 behavioral health sessions in August and September 2019 and 1,188 in 2020 – an 87% increase. The number of calls outside of business hours rose from 59 to 115, or 95%, in August alone, and appointments and consultations rose from 6,213 to 6,796 in both months, an increase of 9%.
Chava Creque, a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, is sitting for a portrait at the Raimy Psychology Clinic in the Muenzinger Psychology Building on Friday. Creque is a fourth-year PhD student in the clinical section of the Psychology and Neuroscience PhD program. (Matthew Jonas / employee photographer)
Counseling and mental health services – known on campus as CAPS – were preparing for an onslaught of students seeking help when the campus closed in the spring, Ng said.
With students prioritizing a safe way to get home and adjust to a troubled life, there wasn't an initial rush – it wasn't until this summer when cases started ticking.
"I think it will take people a while to address their immediate survival needs and understand what this viral situation is about," Ng said.
Students say that they are lonely, isolated, and fearful, and that they feel helpless and powerless in nine months in an upside-down world.
"It triggers trauma for people who have previously experienced trauma," said Ng.
Still in control
Therapists emphasize self-care, Ng said, and return to basics to remind students of the things they are still in control of. You can still find new hobbies, connect with friends, and go for a walk outside.
But even these little acts can feel out of reach for students like Pezeshki. She's stuck in her room all day between all distance learning and remote work.
Pezeshki said she appreciated doing well in school and didn't want to fail – but it's unrealistic for professors to have the same expectations this semester as they did a year ago.
She sought treatment for depression and anxiety at Boulder County Public Health and is now taking medication and seeking a therapist.
"I felt a lot of support from the Boulder community," she said. "They told me that a lot of other people feel this way and get help."
She would like additional support from CU Boulder, such as more flexibility in attending courses for a pass / fail credit instead of a grade and lower expectations. The university has extended the pass / fail deadline to the end of the semester, but has not extended the pass / fail option to almost all classes, as campus leaders did in the spring.
"I have spoken to my advisors and professors and it seems they all understand how hard it is, but there is nothing they can do. It is not their choice to be fully online, it is not their choice to fail / failing, they have to give ratings and tests but I don't think they can have the same expectations as before, "she said." I appreciate doing well in school and I don't want to fail, but this is becoming more of a reality every day. "
Just as professors and students had to abruptly switch to online teaching and learning, therapists had to switch to teletherapy.
CAPS was already using teletherapy, Ng said, but the pandemic means all sessions are now being done virtually.
Ng attributes some of the increase in students seeking help to more students realizing they can use teletherapy even when living hours away from campus.
"Students who are in Fort Collins or Colorado Springs couldn't see our therapists in person, but now we can reach them in every corner of Colorado," she said.
Teletherapy also has some disadvantages, such as: For example, a student who wants to talk about family issues but lives with their family and has no private place to go.
"We try to be creative and tell them to get to your car or take a walk," said Ng.
The Raimy Psychology Clinic also switched all sessions to telemedicine this spring, said clinic director and associate clinical professor Emily Richardson.
Raimy therapists are graduate students in clinical psychology mentored by the CU Boulder faculty or licensed psychologists from the Boulder community. The clinic offers inexpensive sessions for students and staff, as well as tiered payments for community members.
A data protection sign hangs on the door of a room at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Raimy Psychology Clinic in the Münzinger Psychologie building on Friday. (Matthew Jonas / employee photographer)
Raimy hasn't seen a similar increase in students seeking help, Richardson said, which she doesn't attribute to many students who know the clinic is an option.
"One of our problems was letting the students know that they have access to the clinic for services," she said. "When students leave campus and go home, there seems to be an obstacle for them to know where to get help."
One way to increase student awareness is to work with the College of Arts and Sciences to offer freshmen free therapy sessions.
The college was already offering free therapy sessions at Raimy to students at Sewall Hall, said Professor Eric Stade, who chairs a mental health task force at the college.
An extension to all freshmen amid the pandemic makes sense, he said.
"We saw that there was such a need for mental health services," he said. "CAPS does a great job, but sometimes they're overbooked or it doesn't fit well, so Raimy is great to have."
Stress, anxiety, depression
The surge in mental health diagnoses among college students isn't new, Richardson said. According to a national study by the Boston University School of Public Health, diagnoses rose from 22% to 36% between 2007 and 2017.
According to the American College Health Association, stress, anxiety, and depression are more likely to negatively affect students' academic performance than if they contract the flu.
From fall 2019 to spring 2020, the association's health survey found an increase in the number of college students whose academics were affected by stress, anxiety and depression.
Students who reported that stress adversely affected their academic performance rose from 37% to 42%, anxiety from 30% to 32%, and depression from 22% to 25%. Only 7% said the influenza or flu-like illness hurt their academics, up from 16% in the fall.
The key, Richardson said, is to seek help before your depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues become clear.
“'Catch it before it gets worse' is a good time to start therapy, but when you're struggling to get things done you are apathetic and struggling to see the end time to get help, "she said.
"Do our best"
As someone struggling with chronic pain, fatigue, and a nervous system disorder, Delaney Hartmann is used to asking for help.
This semester is frustrating for Hartmann in several ways. She already didn't go outside very often because she's at a higher risk of coronavirus complications, but irresponsible actions by her colleagues – large gatherings, no masks, no distancing – resulted in an increase in cases and even further restrictions.
Hartmann has been ill for six years and has thick skin because people rule out their disabilities.
"But this pandemic has made me very frustrated because I've found that much of the public doesn't understand what people at risk are going through or what they don't care about," she said. "There are a lot of people out there who think that because I'm sick I should be the one to stop my life. If it were collective action, we could get through this a lot faster."
But even amid that frustration, Hartmann said she saw friendliness in friends who offered to help her with errands or shopping.
"While there are some people who are not responsible during this pandemic and are keeping the problems going, there are many of us who are just trying to get through and do the right thing," she said. "We want to graduate, we take care of each other and we try our best."
Junior Sudenaz Kiroglu struggled with loneliness and isolation when she was at home in Turkey during the summer. She posted on the CU Boulder Reddit page trying to make new friends.
On the first day, she had 20 direct messages and couldn't keep up with all of the conversations. Kiroglu finally created a server in the Discord app where online communities can talk about anything through different channels.
Within a few months, Kiroglu's search for new friends has turned into Lonely Buffs, a community of 600+ people talking about everything from health and wellness to politics and movie recommendations.
"I've heard it has a huge impact on mental health and people's health," she said.
Kiroglu is now working with a team of volunteer moderators, and the Lonely Buffs server has game nights, movie nights and even a live bake-along, all of which are performed virtually.
"It gave me something to focus on," said Kiroglu. "It's my first time living off campus by myself. That helped me a lot. I made some really good friends on the server who I can talk to about anything now."
Kiroglu said she wasn't worried the server would become less relevant after the pandemic ended. Lonely Buffs has a popular meet-up channel, but it has been disabled for 18-22 year olds during Boulder's non-tracking and quarantine missions. It's now operational again, along with guidelines on group sizes, mask wearing, and distancing.
"I think the server will get even stronger," she said.
If you or someone you know needs help with depression, anxiety, or mental health:
The Colorado Crisis Services 24/7 Hotline: Call 1-844-493-8255 and send the text "TALK" to 38255.
Walk-in crisis center for mental health partners: 3180 Airport Road, Tel. (303) 443-8500 for telemedicine appointments.
CU Boulder Counseling and Psychiatric Services: 303-492-2277 for 24/7 help, colorado.edu/counseling for scheduling appointments.
Raimy Psychology Clinic: 303-492-5177, leave the name and call the number back.