Although a sense of normalcy has returned to Tufts following semesters of mask-wearing, virtual classes and physical isolation, some health officials have declared the arrival of a second pandemic: a mental health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in mental health illnesses worldwide. As waitlists for psychotherapy sessions increase and mental health professionals experience burnout, the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of students has become apparent.
Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology Sam Sommers explained how the global pandemic has had adverse social and psychological effects on college students.
“Uncertainty is not good for mental health,” Sommers said. “Separation, distance, lack of connectedness to other people is challenging for mental health. One of the big buffers and positive predictors of mental health is social connection, and it was harder to do that in meaningful ways during the pandemic.”
While an estimated one in five American adults experience mental illness, 4.9 million people were unable to access needed care and 17.7 million people experienced delays or canceled appointments in 2020. This can be attributed to a lack of available psychologists, uninsured therapy sessions and restricted access to resources such as Internet and transportation.
According to Sommers, some groups have been more vulnerable to the pandemic and its impact — including people of color, who simultaneously saw a spike in racism and bigotry across the nation.
“It is already differentially stressful to be a student, or faculty or staff member at Tufts based on various aspects of one's identity. We're a predominantly white institution,” Sommers said. “There are stressors [and] challenges that are unique to the experience of students of color … individuals who are gender and sexual minorities to individuals of lower socioeconomic status. All of that [was] just amplified during the pandemic.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, student mental health was already a concern for Tufts. In 2016, the Office of the President created a Mental Health Task Force in order to assess the state of mental health on campus and create recommendations for how to better support students’ needs.
According to the 2019 Report of the Mental Health Task Force, more than 25% of Tufts students on the Medford/Somerville and SMFA campuses utilized Counseling and Mental Health Services between fall 2015 and fall 2018. In addition, many students reported that their academic performances were sometimes deterred by mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression.
According to Julie Jampel, director of training at CMHS, there was an increase of utilization of CMHS services during the 2020–21 academic school year compared to when the pandemic first struck in March of 2020.
“I think overall for college students, the pandemic had a negative impact on mental health,” Jampel said. “It was isolating at first. Isolation is detrimental to people. We are social beings.”
Jampel also explained that Tufts CMHS had to adapt some of its mental health services, such as offering virtual counseling appointments and new programming like workshops to accommodate students who resided out of state. Due to licensing regulations, basic clinical services were limited to students living in Massachusetts.
“We couldn’t actually work in the way [we] were used to,” Jampel said. “Even though we couldn’t offer clinical services outside of Massachusetts, we could consult. We created some programming that allowed consultation and contact with broader groups of students, including out of state students.”
While Tufts and other mental health centers had to modify their services, Jampel believes some of these changes helped to increase mental health accessibility on campus and are still continued until this day, including virtual appointments and an online appointment scheduling system.
“Different appointment modalities [and] different ways of signing up [for appointments] are all designed for accessibility and hopefully improving the probability that someone who wants to reach out to us will,” Jampel said.
Sommers agreed that new adaptations from the pandemic such as telehealth appointments have been shown to be beneficial for accessibility to mental health services in settings and populations that were once harder to reach. Even in the classroom, Sommers explained that he still records his lectures and uses closed captioning to make his courses more readily available to students.
Not only did Tufts CMHS see an increase in the utilization of its mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did Ears for Peers, a student-run anonymous and confidential hotline.
“We statistically saw an uptick in not only the number of calls and texts we received during this [fall] semester, but also just the severity of subjects,” Libby Moser, one of the faces for Ears for Peers, said. “We are dealing with a lot more … mental health issues and crises.”
As one of the faces of Ears for Peers, Moser is a former caller who represents the club publicly. The rest of the callers, called Ears, are anonymous.
This trend matches a similar pattern across the United States. Among American adults ages 18–25, one in three experience a mental health illness and 23% of young adults reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant negative impact on their overall mental health.
Despite the increased volume of calls, Ears for Peers continues to have staff available at all times from 7 p.m to 7 a.m. to talk to its users and has had zero wait time since its inception.
Maitreyi Kale, the other face of Ears for Peers, also noted that there has been a gradual increase in texts and calls since she first started in fall 2018. Kale attributed some of this increase to Tufts recognizing Ears for Peers in their official communications as a resource for students to utilize.
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought lots of uncertainty and loss, Kale believes that the COVID-19 pandemic also led to a greater awareness of recognizing one’s mental health.
“Generally during the pandemic, people had so much more time to reflect and introspect and realize a lot of things about themselves,” Kale said. “You can definitely see that in the kinds of calls that we get and the amount of calls we get.”
Sommers agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped raise awareness of mental health on college campuses.
“Part of me wants to speculate that perhaps many of us are now even more sympathetic to and attuned to the stressors of being a college student or even a human being than we were beforehand,” Sommers said.
Tufts has attempted to raise more awareness towards mental health on campus, including by hosting the Tufts CMHS Mental Health and Wellbeing Fair on Oct. 3. This fair was made up of a variety of booths to help students learn more about coping skills and resources available on campus to promote their mental and emotional well being. Tufts also hosted events and activities throughout Mental Health Awareness week from meditation sessions to rock painting to health promotion workshops.
Despite the attempt to prioritize emotional wellbeing throughout campus, stigma surrounding mental health still exists.
“I would hope that stigma is not more problematic at Tufts than it is elsewhere, but Tufts certainly is a segment of society and not immune from the biases that exist in the society at large,” Sommers said.
Moser agreed that stigma still exists at Tufts, but she believes that an increased awareness of mental health has helped in reducing this shame. Moser believes the volume of calls that Ears for Peers receives reflects people seeking help for a variety of problems from mild to severe.
“More people are seeking help and more people are reaching out for the big things, but they’re also reaching out for the little things,” Moser said. “I think that the reflected call volume, while you know could be a discouraging sign of mental health getting worse, I think it’s also a really hopeful sign in terms of people seeking the help that they need.”
Kale echoes that more students are seeking help, but believes that there still remains more work to be done to better support certain groups.
“In terms of stigma, there's some things that I feel have become more accepted over time,” Kale said. “I feel like people talk a lot more about depression, anxiety, [and] neurodivergence. … There's still some [groups] that have so much stigma around them and so much shame that people are experiencing, and it's really hard to see. I don't think that we're fighting stigma at an equal pace for all of the things across the board.”
Kale hopes to see more acceptance of eating disorders, bipolar disorders and discussions surrounding disability at Tufts, as well as better promotion of the mental health resources available to graduate students.
While some students are still recovering from the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sommers hopes that there continues to be an open discourse on mental health.
“I think that talking about these issues openly and without stigma and without judgment, is a really important thing,” Sommers said. “I hope that our campus only continues to be an increasingly inclusive one on a variety of fronts.”
In addition, Kale and Moser hope that Ears for Peers can be a resource for students to share their stories and experiences in a casual setting, and encourages students to call no matter the circumstance.
“I think part of the reasons that people love Ears for Peers is the casualness,” Moser said. “People don't realize that until they call us for the first time. It’s just another person, another peer, another student. It's someone who is at your eye level talking to you and that's kind of freeing in a lot of ways.”