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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — In a University of Iowa park last week, 1,200 small yellow flags aimed to bring awareness — if not voice — to the shrouded problem of suicide.
“I’m so proud of everything you’ve overcome,” read one of the hundreds of messages inked on the flags, which in total represented the national annual average of students lost to suicide on college campuses. “Keep fighting.”
Another read: “You are missed.”
As vice president of the UI student organization “Active Minds,” aimed at providing mental health education and advocacy, senior Temyia J. Holcomb said she’s keenly aware of the struggles her peers are experiencing — and ways they’ve been aggravated amid lockdowns as the pandemic continues.
“It's definitely been a stressful adjustment, going back on campus to in-person classes,” Holcomb said, noting she’s vaccinated and wears a mask when indoors. “But it’s a struggle to just be in a safe space again with all this new fear. Before COVID-19, you didn’t have to worry about ‘If I touch this door handle, am I going to get sick?’”
More college and university students both nationally and locally are in need of mental health resources in the wake of pandemic-related changes and challenges, according to recent surveys and campus experts.
Although suicidal ideation still affects only a sliver of college students, a growing number are dealing with things like anxiety and depression. And Holcomb said she thinks the coronavirus is at least partly to blame.
“Loneliness is something that a lot of people are dealing with,” she said — “having that time during quarantine and then coming onto campus, trying to figure out how to make friends.”
‘Due to the pandemic’
A UI version of the National College Health Assessment — which it has administered annually for years and conducted again earlier this year, in late Feb. to mid-March — asked specifically about COVID-19’s impact.
It found 87 percent of the 872 UI undergraduates who completed the survey experienced more stress “due to the pandemic,” and 52 percent of those who received counseling or therapy thought accessing mental health services became more difficult in the pandemic.
Among the 861 UI graduate students who completed the 2021 survey, 90 percent reported more overall stress due to the pandemic. Of the 545 professional students who completed the survey, 83 percent said the pandemic created more stress.
At the undergraduate level, 19 percent said they had contracted COVID-19 at some point — plus another 12 percent who suspected they had. A quarter of the responding undergrads had a loved one with long-term effects, and 11 percent said a loved one had died as a result of the disease.
Fewer graduate and professional students reported contracting the infection, but graduate students reported similar percentages to their undergraduate counterparts for affected loved ones.
To more general questions on mental health, 79 percent of UI undergraduates, 81 percent of UI graduate students and 73 percent of professional students reported moderate or high stress levels in the last year.
But where “academics” used to far and away be the top stressor for students — earning that label from 57 percent of polled undergrads in 2019 — academics dropped several places in the list of top stressors for all three groups of UI students this year.
Undergraduates, graduate and professional students all labeled “procrastination” as their top stressor this year, followed by “personal appearance.” The “health of someone else” and “finances” also stressed the students, according to the study.
Among undergrads, 34 percent reported being diagnosed with anxiety and 27 percent said they’ve been diagnosed with depression in their life — up from 2019’s percentages. About 11 percent said they attempted self-injury, an increase over 2019’s 9 percent.
If you or someone you know has a mental health emergency during hours that University of Iowa Counseling Services is open (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday), call 319-335-7294 and ask the receptionist about same-day appointment availability or ask to speak with the emergency duty counselor.
Other urgent or emergency services and resources:
CommUnity Crisis Services: 855-325-4296
UIHC Emergency Treatment Center:- 319-356-2233
GuideLink Center: 319-688-8000
University of Iowa Police 911 (emergency) or 319-335-5022 (non-emergency)
“Anxiety and depression continued to be the most common presenting concerns assessed by clinicians,” according to the 2020 Center for Collegiate Mental Health national report, which noted, “One of the most well documented trends in higher education over the last 20 years is the dramatic increase in the number of students being referred to and seeking mental health services, which have not been scaled equivalently.”
‘All hands on deck’
That uptick is real for Iowa’s public universities, and UI Counseling Service Director Barry Schreier said his office has been seeing more students for a range of issues — from relationship concerns to depression to anxiety.
“When we ask students, ‘is the reason you're coming in related to COVID?’ Well over half the students are checking yes,” he said.
But specifics around the pandemic’s mental health fallout vary greatly — including health concerns, social anxieties, family worries and finances.
“The impact is not one-size-fits-all,” he said. “Think about our second-year students — the sophomores this year. This is the group that didn’t get a chance for graduation. Didn’t get actual on-campus orientation through the university. A lot of their first year was remote, and now two years later they're having really the first close-to-usual year on campus. So it's almost two years of disruption for just that group.”
And no one is immune, Schreier said, noting all levels of students, faculty, staff and teaching assistants are struggling.
“It's a global impact, and our campus is simply showing the signs that are showing up everywhere because of all of this,” he said.
“On campus, I feel that currently suicide is kind of a silent problem. Unless you know someone personally or have a friend of a friend … you’re really not hearing about these issues.”
With the surging demand for mental health and counseling services — about 54 percent of it in-person and 46 percent of it virtually — Schreier said his team is in an “all-hands-on-deck” mode. A fully-staffed office is about two dozen, and Schreier said it’s a few short right now.
Like Iowa’s public universities, college campuses nationally are experiencing an influx of demand, according to a 2020 survey from Timely MD, a higher education telehealth company. That survey, completed in June 2020 with more than 500 responding college students, found women reported higher rates of coronavirus-related stress than men — 93 compared with 78 percent.
When asked about coping mechanisms, the most — 65 percent — said they turned to television, movies or streaming services. About 59 percent used video calls to cope; 50 percent tried exercise; and 47 percent spent time outdoors to try to cope.
Only 24 percent “disconnected from social media and news” to cope, according to the national survey, which also found just 21 percent reported seeking emotional support by talking with a licensed counselor or behavioral health professional.
Still, in looking at the bigger picture, the Center of Collegiate Mental Health has found between fall 2009 and spring 2015, counseling center use on college campuses jumped an average of 30 to 40 percent — even as enrollment increased by just 5 percent.
‘Still have grit’
Iowa State University Police Chief Michael Newton said he’s seen this first hand — and his department has made mental health response a priority, hiring mental health advocates and putting officers through specific training.
ISU police in 2020 and this year have seen more COVID-19-related mental health challenges, Newton said.
“A lot of it revolves around people seem to have forgotten how to socialize with one another,” he said. “That has caused some mental anxiety and stress. They haven’t been around people in a while, they haven't had to interact. … And so we are seeing, at times, people don't seem to have the same patience that they once had.”
Regarding ISU police calls “with a mental health aspect,” officers received 21 calls for mental health, psychiatric disorder, or welfare check in August 2020 and 18 in August 2021.
They didn’t receive any suicide or suicidal ideation calls those months. But the University of Northern Iowa in September took two suicidal ideation calls, and the UI in the month of September took one call for a suicide threat, three for suicide attempts and responded to one suicide.
“It is with sadness that we write to inform you about the loss of a member of our Hawkeye community,” the UI Office of the Dean of Students wrote Sept. 17 to students in the Burge Residence Hall after a student died that day by suspected suicide.
“Experiencing this loss during the unprecedented times we’ve been living in can make this even more distressing and may result in stronger reactions,” according to the message. “Please know you are not alone and have many resources on campus and within the residence halls.”
The UI has stopped putting out campuswide message about suicides — in that they can be triggering for some. And UI senior Holcomb said she understands that. But also worries the problem is slipping by unnoticed.
“On campus, I feel that currently suicide is kind of a silent problem,” she said. “Unless you know someone personally or have a friend of a friend … you’re really not hearing about these issues. They’re not really talked about openly.”
Although that and other mental health challenges are concerning, UI Counseling Director Schreier said he’s seen reason for hope.
“We’re also hearing from the students that they feel resilient,” he said. “They still feel like they have grit. And they’re still persisting.”
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