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Rutgers students open up about mental health struggles amid pandemic

Rutgers Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program & Psychiatric Services saw a significant increase in the number of students using their services during the summer of 2020, at times providing more than 50 percent of their typical services. – Photo by The Daily Targum

Rutgers Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program & Psychiatric Services (CAPS) has seen a fluctuation in the number of students seeking mental health services throughout the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, said Steve Sohnle, the program’s director.

In the Spring 2020 semester, CAPS saw a significant decrease in the students using their services, he said. Though, in the summer they saw a significant increase, sometimes providing more than 50 percent of their usual services. 

In the Fall 2020 semester, CAPS initially saw a decrease by about 25 percent of the expected number of students, but the numbers eventually rose back to normal throughout the academic year. 

“We’re expecting demand for mental health services in the fall to be higher than usual as everyone tries to find their way back to some semblance of ‘normal,’ and will need to reflect on how the conditions of the pandemic have affected them,” Sohnle said.

He said many students have struggled with adapting to remote schooling and reported feeling isolated from peers and instructors, while others struggling with a loss of structure from asynchronous classes.

Katherine Liu, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, said she experienced this loss of connection with her professors and fellow students, especially in large lecture-style classes where much of the communication is limited or moderated.

“It kind of feels a little dehumanizing that I'm not attending classes with actual people and it seems more so like icons on the screen,” she said.

Liu said these large lectures have also impacted her expectations of what in-person learning may be like.

“It's really easy to come and go and no one is really noticed by the professors, so that kind of makes me feel like college is kind of this environment,” she said. “Students aren't exactly being as big of an impact in one class, especially if it's a large lecture."

Sohnle said meaningful losses, such as a lack of major celebrations or distance from family members, have also contributed to stress.

Victoria Gasper, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, spoke about similar sources of stress, stating that being unable to meet with friends at the start of the pandemic led to increased feelings of isolation and disconnection from many areas of life.

Gasper also said these feelings of isolation worsened due to recently transferring to Rutgers in the Fall 2019 semester and having just a few months to become accustomed to the University before the lockdown. Gasper said they feel as though they have been robbed of a college experience.

“(The loss of a college experience) weighed on me for a very long time, especially now that seniors aren't getting a graduation,” Gasper said. “I get to hear my name called out over Zoom, get my diploma in the mail and that's it.”

Sohnle said some students have also dealt with significant financial hardships due to their own or a family member’s job loss, increasing the number of students dealing with housing and food insecurity. He also said an additional source of stress has come from recent incidents of racial discrimination throughout the country. 

Gasper also spoke about the role of external circumstances in the stress students are currently experiencing, stating that social, political and economic issues have left students with a lot to cope with.

“I see a lot of tweets that are like, ‘Man, I don't want to be alive during history like this,’ you know ‘I never signed up to be to be living through so many historical events all at once,’” Gasper said. “It's difficult to live life as it was before and to also cope with the fact that life will never be the same as it was before all this.”

Some students also said they have experienced an uptick in exhaustion, demotivation and other mental health challenges due to their home situations and overall burnout from virtual schooling. 

Peter Chen, a School of Engineering first-year, said he has felt increased fatigue from working in a virtual environment and that mental illness has made it challenging for him on many days. 

Elizabeth Keck, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said her anxiety and depression increased throughout the school year due to being stuck at home and her family members being at higher risk for COVID-19. She said she has never seen her mental health as bad as it currently is.

“I began to feel neutral about things I once was passionate about, like working (toward) my major or maintaining a certain GPA,” she said. 

Beyond using CAPS, students have found other ways to cope with these challenges on their own during the pandemic.

Liu said being able to speak with others helps take the stress off her shoulders and also helps her remember she is not alone. She also said organizing her tasks into Google Calendar and Notion helps her stay aware of important tasks.

Chen said he has coped with some of these difficulties by playing video games and going outdoors when he can. 

Gasper said they have found therapeutic services to be beneficial to their health, but also said that it is important to listen to yourself when you need a break.

“You have to be gentle with yourself and listen to your own intuition to know what's going to be best for you in any given moment,” Gasper said. “It's okay to take a step back to decompress and then come back at it with a better mindset.”

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