Students push for greater accessibility to mental health resources in virtual panel

Student suffering from stress. (Photo by Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

By Madeleine Pearce
Boston University News Service

Students from colleges and universities throughout the northeast gathered virtually last week to review mental health struggles students have faced since the beginning of the pandemic. Hosted by The Boston Globe on Feb. 16, a panel of students and a youth mental health expert discussed mental health on college campuses and more.

Ranging from undergraduates to doctoral students, panelists and attendants shared their personal experiences and brainstormed solutions to bring awareness to the persistent issue.

In a national study presented by Harvard College senior Ellen Burstein, an increased number of 18- to 29-year-olds are experiencing symptoms of depression.

“We’ve consistently seen over 50% of our respondents have symptoms of severe depression, and over 25% have expressed that they’ve had regular thoughts of self-harm or suicide,” said Burstein at the event.

“I think that for many, the problems of mental health that existed in the pre-pandemic world have still persisted but perhaps more alarmingly is that I, among many people, have accrued what I can only describe as something akin to PTSD,” said Matt Capone, a sophomore at Dartmouth College. “I think that not only are students having to grapple with what they’ve been grappling with for a while now, but they’re also needing to reconcile what the pandemic has done to us.”

Capone referenced a culture of competitive work ethic where he said students strive to outdo each other with their workloads. 

Dr. Zainab Okolo, a strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, agreed with Capone and said college suffering was romanticized before the pandemic, whether in daily conversations with peers or in Hollywood.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong or even strange for you to feel sad,” said Okolo. 

In addition to the regular academic struggles, some students found striking a balance with pandemic stress to be overwhelming.

“My experience since [the beginning of the pandemic] has just been more stressed,” said Allison Buckenmaier, a fifth-year student at Northeastern University. “I think I was just as stressed to be honest before; it just felt a little different.” 

Most universities offer short-term care, including Boston University, but students discovered several challenges accessing mental health services. 

Tanush Jagdish, a doctoral student at Harvard, said he worried certain people would not have access to the conversations about mental health, including international students.

“They leave out a huge section of society that probably needs the most help,” said Jagdish. 

To increase accessibility to mental health, Okolo suggested expanding available mental health services to include a diverse set of staff.

“Representation becomes that much more important in terms of having service men and women that are able to speak to the needs of students of color, international students, and their backgrounds,” said Okolo. 

Amy Gatto, senior manager of high ed and evaluation at Active Minds, said universities nationally are beginning to prioritize students’ mental health but need to make the conversations surrounding the subject more accessible to all students.

“A lot of the conversations that we talk about come from a place of privilege,” said Gatto.

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