By Anthony Covell
It was January in State College, Pennsylvania, and I was a duck on a pond — cruising with grace on the surface, and paddling feverishly below. During the day, I was an involved student maintaining a heavy course load while balancing extracurriculars. At night, I was a grieving brother, struggling deeply and crying often.
I was a sophomore at Penn State University when my brother, Dylan, passed away from suicide. Dylan was 22 years-old and a Sergeant in the United States Marines Corps, stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was an airframe mechanic, a proud service member, an avid Philadelphia sports fan, a dog dad, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon connoisseur. Above all else, he was my big brother, and I felt empty in his departure.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month and the need for prevention and intervention measures could not be more urgent. Around the globe, the impact on mental illness and suicidality has been at the forefront of conversations about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, and social distancing measures. Long term impact remains to be studied, but the early data is alarming; in the United States, 40% of adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2020, compared to 10% who reported symptoms in 2019. Of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 surveyed by the Center for Disease Control during the pandemic, 25% reported seriously considering suicide in the past 30 days.
Evidence of this mental health crisis is also appearing on college campuses: symptoms of depression and anxiety increased in undergraduate and graduate students during the 2020–21 academic school year, and of nearly 33,000 students who took mental health screening questionnaires, 60% reported experiencing depression, while others also reported generalized anxiety disorder, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Two-thirds of students also reported having heightened feelings of isolation.
The extent of these devastating challenges, and the need to implement more robust and accessible social-emotional supports, has not gone unnoticed: nearly 70% of college and university presidents identify the mental health of their students as the most pressing issue facing their institutions.
These statistics paint an important and jarring picture — what they fail to capture is the full story behind each number. A story like mine, as a 19 year-old student in rural Pennsylvania, struggling with my own mental health before and in the wake of my brother’s passing. In my story, I was fortunate enough to find a Licensed Social Worker in a private practice off campus who helped treat me for severe depression and anxiety. I remember distinctly how overwhelmed my university’s campus resources were, and how simply getting a mental health screening on campus had a 3-week wait time.
How many students have a different story? A story in which they slip through the cracks while waiting for appointments that never become available, without access to private practices or health insurance that helps foot the bill?
In order to ensure that the holistic social-emotional needs of all students are met, lawmakers, education leaders, and key stakeholders must coordinate to advance evidence-based policies and flexible systems of support that address the mental health epidemic on our college campuses.
First, federal, state, and local governments, in conjunction with institutions of higher education (IHEs), must increase investments in mental health and wraparound services on college campuses. This funding would go toward services such as expanding affordable and equitable access to a diverse field of clinical experts to supplement on-campus appointments; hiring additional on-campus specialists to better address the holistic needs of each student; and expanding access to additional supports that relieve stress and improve mental health, such as child care, financial aid counseling, career counseling, tutoring, and coaching.
Second, mental health supports are only effective when students know where and how to access them. IHEs must also ensure that students are properly informed about the resources available to them through reiterative learning in required classes and orientation seminars, as well as regular communication between the administration, campus programming officials, and the student body.
Finally, the federal government must fund research to study the impact of the pandemic on the social-emotional wellbeing and mental health of students across all levels of education. Without a strong understanding of the psychological effects of the pandemic, it is difficult to accurately gauge the scale and scope of the need for services, programming, and funding. With a better understanding of how social isolation, quarantine, transitions to virtual learning, and more have impacted students’ wellbeing and mental health, colleges and universities will be able to more effectively put dollars and resources behind alleviating the growing mental health crisis — on college campuses, and for students at every level.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated a wide range of societal inequities that have raged for far too long, unaddressed — including the mental health crisis in our schools and on our campuses. There is much work to be done to end the suicide epidemic and ensure student success, like making bold, robust investments in mental health resources, ensuring students are able to access them, and conducting timely research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on learners across all levels of education. This work is critical in mitigating this crisis, improving the health and development of students, and destigmatizing mental illness. The work is worth it. Our students are worth it.
If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self harm, please call 1–800–273–8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
For access to therapists and mental health care in your area, please visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.
To learn more about how to be a better advocate for suicide prevention and awareness, please visit https://afsp.org/.
Anthony Covell is the Advocacy Associate at America Forward.