Last week, the Portland State University campus looked much the same as before the pandemic. Students walked the blocks in downtown Southwest Park, packed up for the cold final weeks of the fall semester. In buildings, people took their final exams or studied for them.
Though the campus and classrooms may resemble life before the arrival of COVID-19, students and administrators say it doesn’t really feel like it. Many students are still being impacted by the pandemic when it comes to social and emotional well-being and mental health.
At a immunization event at the Native American Student and Community Center on PSU’s campus, Grace Johnson hands out free stickers, condoms, and pamphlets about the university’s counseling services.
Johnson is part of PSU’s Wellness & Health Action Team — or WHAT — a group of students who work with the Center for Student Health and Counseling as peer mentors and educators.
“I enjoy connecting people to the counseling services,” Johnson said. “I’m always glad to at least have someone pointing me in the right direction because when I was looking for advice a few years ago, the hardest part was just making the appointment.”
Johnson began going to counseling in high school. She said this experience made her more comfortable accessing PSU’s counseling services when she really needed them in her sophomore year when the pandemic shifted classes and campus operations from in-person to online.
She says her own personal experience of accessing mental health resources helps her encourage other students to do the same.
“It helps me be more empathetic and understanding,” Johnson said. “I think with lived experiences comes a more nuanced understanding and less black-and-white thinking … It adds a layer of understanding and comfort to students.”
According to PSU’s Center for Student Health and Counseling, more students have scheduled counseling appointments as the pandemic has progressed.
“In the past academic year, we have seen an increase in the number of unique students who have engaged in counseling services,” said Marcy Hunt, Principal of SHAC, “and I expect that number to continue to increase for the current academic year.”
According to Hunt, the student health center is working hard to hire more therapists to meet this increased need.
Colleges and universities across the country are also seeing an increased need for undergraduate mental health services.
According to a national Healthy Minds study that surveyed approximately 350,000 students nationwide, more than 60% of students met criteria for one or more mental health problems in the 2020-2021 school year. This is an increase of almost 50% compared to 2013.
Hunt said students at PSU access counseling to address concerns such as anxiety, depression, relationship issues and difficulty concentrating on academic work.
The rush is back, but some students still feel left behind
University administrators that OPB spoke to across the Portland area have noted that students on campus feel disconnected even as pandemic-related restrictions are lifted and in-person events resume.
That’s what PSU student Johnson sees.
Though the number of students seeking guidance has increased, Johnson said she and her fellow mentors have seen fewer students come to the WHAT table at on-campus events this year.
Johnson said she’s not exactly sure why that is, but she suspects the students are feeling disconnected.
“People kind of come back to school or finish it and … they’re just like, ‘Okay, I’m just trying to go to class,'” she said. “‘I’m not trying to do an activity with this random girl from the health center.'”
Johnson said students seem less interested in getting involved in campus activities than they did before the pandemic. That’s what she’s referring to. She is in her senior year at PSU and is completing a public health degree.
“Honestly, I had a hard time making connections and having a solid group of friends in college … and I think that had to do with being very isolated during COVID and during those formative years of college,” Johnson said. “And then, now, like this year and last year, I’m just like, ‘Okay, well, I’m in the process of graduating.’ I have neither the time nor the need to go to every orientation.”
This is not the case for every student. According to Oregon students and university administrators contacted by the OPB, there are still many people looking forward to returning to in-person events.
But it’s clear that the pandemic has had a lasting impact on many students, as evidenced by more students accessing counseling services — and fewer students living on Portland State campuses.
In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic, more than 1,900 students lived on PSU’s campus. That number fell by more than half in the first year of the pandemic to 838 students living on campus in the fall of 2020.
That number has risen again, but not to pre-pandemic levels. As of fall 2021, 1,641 students lived in on-campus housing. This fall, that number has fallen slightly to 1,619.
Mental health for the next generation: ‘We don’t know if everything will be fine’
Some administrators say social anxiety was particularly prevalent among students who spent the latter part of high school online because of the pandemic. They missed personal milestones like prom and graduation, and may have started college online as well.
Johnson says she sees a difference between the younger people in her life.
“I’m 22. I’m graduating in the spring of 2023, and people my age are like the last class of people who had any semblance of college before COVID,” Johnson said.
“There’s just been such a shift in socialization, in the way people socialize,” she said. “It’s so hard to get Gen Z to be happy or to say, ‘Oh, everything’s going to be okay,’ because we just literally don’t know if everything’s going to be okay.”
Johnson said speaking out about mental health and mental illness has normalized during the pandemic, and that has its pros and cons.
“Normalizing mental illness has become such a great conversation, but because it’s talked about like that, it’s almost become an identity for people,” Johnson said. “I’ve had moments in my mental health journey where my depression was such a part of my identity that when I felt better I wanted to go back into my depression pit because I didn’t know anything better.”
Hunt, director of the Center for Student Health and Counseling, said it’s a common challenge for students dealing with mental health issues — not just depression, but conditions like anxiety, ADHD and eating disorders.
“The good news is that treatment (therapy/medication management) works by improving a person’s ability to manage or cope with depressive symptoms, allowing them more capacity to connect with these other parts of their core identity or to reconnect,” Hunt said.
Johnson said WHAT examines the intricacies of mental illness and health in its interactions with students. In addition to the tabling events, the team strives to reach out to students in a variety of ways, such as workshops, a podcast, and social media posts dedicated to student well-being.
“We want to be able to communicate with students as equals because for many people, especially when it comes to help, it can be intimidating to go up to a professional or someone older than you and ask around advice,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she and her staff recently hosted a workshop on resilience. They emphasized finding ways to positively reframe stressful situations, such as failing a test or missing an important deadline.
“It’s going to suck right now,” Johnson said. “But you also have to learn — you have to have the skills to accept things and move on.”
She hopes students will gain these skills by accessing help when they need it.
“I don’t know if it will get better, but I hope so,” Johnson said. “I hope it works for people my age and for people younger than me. I see the light for us.”