Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

How is the University supporting students' mental health during COVID-19?

By KATY WILNER | April 2, 2020

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COURTESY OF KATY WILNER Hopkins students anonymously relayed information about their mental health, drug and alcohol use, and their thoughts about University resources.

Amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the majority of Hopkins affiliates left campus and returned home. Despite courses recommencing — and with it the familiarity of homework, quizzes and midterms — current life for Hopkins students is anything but normal.

The abrupt changes the country has undertaken to reduce the spread of the novel virus have had noticeable impacts on the student body, including self-isolation, relocation and general uncertainty about how the semester will move forward. 

In an email to The News-Letter, junior Bentley Addison said that the University’s response to the pandemic, in terms of mental health resources for undergraduates, is not sufficient. 

“The University has done a characteristically poor job ensuring students who need mental health services know what their options are,” he wrote. “Since leaving campus, it’s become pretty clear that ensuring students can continue to connect with counselors and psychiatrists isn’t a priority. For me, this process has been one of contradictory emails, bizarre restrictions on which students can access services and which are to be referred elsewhere, and more than anything, radio silence.”

Jacki Stone, director of student well-being, clarified in an email to The News-Letter that the Counseling Center will continue to do phone check-ins and tele-counseling if licensing laws permit them to do so.

Because therapists at the Counseling Center are licensed in Maryland, they are unable to offer services to students who leave the state. However, Stone explained that the Center will provide ongoing assistance for students who are seeking referrals for treatment in their new locations.

To better understand the impacts these new measures have on the mental health of the Hopkins community, The News-Letter reached out to students, faculty and administrators for comment.

Mental Health During Quarantine

In an email to The News-Letter, sophomore Xandi Egginton shared that spending time in isolation has caused his mental well-being to suffer, particularly because he is anxious that he will contract the disease. 

“My mental health has deteriorated ever since having strictly self-quarantined in my home in Charles Village, away from my parents,” he wrote. “I was exposed to my boss at work who tested positive for the virus. I’ve been anxious about becoming sick myself, and unable to function adequately, especially when it comes to coursework.”

Senior Tejiri Smith is also dealing with anxiety as COVID-19 continues to spread. Smith, whose mother is a medical employee, stated that part of the deterioration of her mental health stems from concerns about those directly affected by the disease, but also the impacts the virus will have on the country’s economic future.

“I really hate thinking about the million things that COVID-19 is affecting. From constant worry about my mother, who provides for everyone in my family on her own through nursing, to the fact that I’m going to be ‘graduating’ into a professional world that is hitting the fan... my mental health has been extremely difficult to reconcile with, as my anxiety has been making my sleep restless and unfulfilling,” she said. 

Smith noted that her own mental health challenges might be mirrored in students who have been forced to find new ways to support their families; students struggling with relatives who are in COVID-19 “hot spots,” such as New York; first generation, limited-income (FLI) students; and students who do not have ideal access to their courses because of time-zone issues.

Sophomore Hannah Bruckheim informed The News-Letter that the only reason she was able to continue using the Counseling Center was because she was personally informed about what resources were available.

“I see a psychiatrist and therapist at the Counseling Center, and I had no idea if I would be able to keep seeing them until my therapist took the initiative to reach out to me herself — not the University,” she said. “[The University has] done an awful job of prioritizing their students’ mental health and actively make it more difficult for us to be assured of their expectations and next steps.”

Stone reiterated that each patient has individual needs, but remote communication may provide an opportunity for students to try new methods of bettering their mental health. 

“Staff are all still working and here to support students. If anyone has questions they can absolutely reach out via phone or email and a staff member can talk them through resources, events, and get them connected to the right staff members,” she wrote.

The News-Letter conducted an anonymous poll about mental health, which garnered 353 student responses. 

In response to a question asking about changes in mental health since the switch to remote learning, some students noted that their well-being has worsened because of job losses, sitting at home all day, lack of friends and no consistent schedule. One student answered that the inability to have regular meetings with a therapist has made it difficult to cope with anxiety. The student also felt unable to schedule a Zoom session because of a lack of privacy at home.

Overall, 81.8 percent of the students surveyed said that their mental health has been impacted, for better or for worse, since the start of quarantine.

Senior Nicole Garcia explained to The News-Letter that, surprisingly, her mental health has been more stable than it was before quarantine. Garcia, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said that her improvement in mood was surprising, but was probably a combination of several factors, not simply the switch to online learning.

“I’m definitely an extrovert, and I thought my extroversion paired with my disorder would create the perfect storm, but that hasn’t been the case at all,” she said. 

Garcia noted that her therapist at the Counseling Center reached out to her and offered to continue sessions via Zoom, which she found was helpful. However, she argued that the University may face difficulties helping other students because many have unstable home lives. For some students during social distancing, she said, drugs and alcohol may be the only accessible form of coping.

Drug and Alcohol Consumption

The mental health poll The News-Letter conducted included several questions about student drug and alcohol use since the transition to remote learning. These questions were prompted by a rise in memes and jokes that students made about becoming alcoholics or using drugs to deal with quarantine. 

However, out of the students polled, 67.4 percent answered that their alcohol use had either remained constant, had decreased or they do not drink at all.

In contrast, 59.6 percent of those polled speculated that their peers’ alcohol use had increased by either a little or a lot since the start of quarantine.

Similarly, only 21 percent of students reported an increase in drug use — by either a little or a lot — but 47.6 reported that their peers’ drug use had increased.

Junior Sonomi Oyagi expressed to The News-Letter that, to her awareness, there has been a rise in substance use among students.

“I’ve noticed alcohol consumption among a lot of my peers has increased fairly significantly since quarantine and drug use has increased a bit for a few of my peers,” Oyagi said.

Oyagi noted that as students begin to acclimate to expectations of their virtual classes, this usage might decrease. Yet, she hypothesized that the baseline level of consumption might be higher than during a typical semester.

University Resources

According to The News-Letter’s poll, only 30.6 percent of students believe that the University has effectively informed them about the remote mental health resources available to them.

Executive Director of the Counseling Center Matthew Torres wrote in an email to The News-Letter that the Counseling Center will conduct virtual workshops on stress management, mindful living and wellness. These workshops will address issues specifically tailored to the mental health issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, Torres noted that services that the Center is still offering can be found on the main page of the Counseling Center website, on the wellness.jhu website and in emails sent to the Hopkins community. Here, students can also get information regarding the Calm app and SilverCloud — an online, confidential mental health resource that focuses on cognitive behavioral techniques for managing depression, anxiety and stress.

“Through our social media we have been emphasizing healthy ways to cope with feelings of uncertainty, stress, anxiety, fear, etc.” he wrote. “As we all navigate this challenging situation, we will continue to evaluate students’ needs and align our programming accordingly.”

Additional services the Counseling Center plans to offer include mindful yoga via Zoom, which students can register for on the Wellness website in the upcoming days. Jacki Stone also revealed that the Center for Health Education and Wellness is in the early stages of planning for a virtual space where students can discuss the challenges they are facing, as well as describe the strategies they are implementing that are helping them adjust to new reality.

Aside from utilizing resources, such as the Calm app, SilverCloud and reaching out directly to the Counseling Center, Stone encouraged students to take walks if local laws allow students to do so and to disconnect from technology when possible.

Stone also relayed some personal tips she has found helpful over the past few weeks, including: connecting with family and friends through a web-based book club; setting a routine for weekdays that includes 30 minutes of exercise; and communicating expectations for the people she lives with. She emphasized that openly discussing issues such as personal space and cleaning has made it easier to transition to a more isolated lifestyle.

“Transitions can be hard at any time and the stress that comes with an abrupt end to the semester, shifting expectations of about how to engage with learning, and also attending to the on-going news cycle can feel overwhelming,” she wrote. “I encourage students to notice their feelings and practice self-compassion and patience to remind yourself to try the best you can, but also know when you need to take a break and re-charge.”

The Counseling Center can be reached at (410) 516-8278. For more information on substance use disorders in the context of mental health, students can go to e-CHECKUP TO GO. Students can register for the Counseling Center’s virtual workshops at https://baseline.campuslabs.com/jhu/workshopsspring2020.

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