Education

Mental health worries mount on Iowa's public campuses

University officials report calls for help are surging

Toys that help relieve nervous energy or psychological stress lie on a table in a counseling room during the Sept. 28, 2
Toys that help relieve nervous energy or psychological stress lie on a table in a counseling room during the Sept. 28, 2017, grand opening for the east side campus location of the University of Iowa Counseling Services. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As a senior at Hoover High School last spring in Des Moines, Annika Baker was supposed to play the lead as Elle in her school production of “Legally Blonde,” the musical. But COVID-19 canceled those plans.

She was supposed to walk across a stage in front of cheering friends and family to get her hard-earned diploma. But instead, administrators let just one student at a time enter the school to get the document and shake a hand.

The coronavirus kept her from doing much post-graduation summer celebrating, and had her wondering if this was the best time to start college.

“Part of me did want to wait, but the rest of me was like, your scholarships aren’t going to carry over,” Baker, 18, said. “So there wasn’t a whole lot of choice.”

Facing the prospect of mounting student debt, she decided to “power through” an unprecedented freshman year at Iowa State University. And, Baker told The Gazette, it hasn’t been easy.

“There’s a lot less dorm life than I really anticipated,” she said, then couching that: “It’s not that there’s not dorm life. It’s just that I’m not participating. Because I really don’t want to be infected and bring that into my classes.”

When asked how she’s been doing emotionally with all the COVID-19 stressors, mishmash of online and in-person classes and desire to forge new friendships and find her footing on an unfamiliar campus, Baker said, “not great.”

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“There’s a lot of feelings of isolation and loneliness,” she said. “And every once in a while, they just get really strong for some reason. And 20 minutes later it’s fine again.”

She’s made about three friends on campus, “about one and a half of which I would go to if I needed to talk about something serious.”

Although Baker might feel alone, she’s not.

‘incredibly worried’

Leaders and experts across Iowa’s higher education landscape report students are struggling with this fall’s vast disparities from the traditional college experience many had anticipated for much of their lives.

“Have I talked to a single student who hasn’t said this semester is not what anybody wanted? I haven’t talked to a single student that said that,” University of Iowa Counseling Service Director Barry Schreier said. “Have I talked to a single student who doesn’t say, ‘I wish things were different?’ I haven’t met that student this semester yet either.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s seen a surge in diagnosed mental illness. “They simply are responding reasonably to a really bad thing,” Shreier said.

Still, some law enforcement and counseling professionals across Iowa’s public universities told the Board of Regents last week they’ve seen a surge in mental health-related calls.

“We’re incredibly worried about the level of suicide ideation that has gone up across campus,” University of Northern Iowa Vice President for Student Affairs Paula Knudson told the regents last Tuesday.

UNI, along with ISU and the UI, have continued to offer an array of counseling services this fall — including in-person and virtual appointments. Knudson said three-quarters of the UNI Counseling Center’s clients are choosing “in-person vs. the Zoom.”

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Of UNI Counseling’s walk-in opportunities, she said, “Our students are using it volumes.”

“And the severity of what they’re experiencing has increased over the course of the fall,” Knudson said. “So, for instance, some students dealing with anxiety are now dealing with depression.”

UNI Police Chief and Public Safety Director Helen Haire added, “We’ve noticed an increase, not only in (suicidal) ideation but in actual attempts. People have a plan and a way to carry out that plan.”

On the ISU campus, ISU Police Chief Michael Newton said, “We’re in a very similar position.”

“We’ve seen a definite increase in our mental health calls for service,” he said. “We have seen a significant increase in suicidal ideation, suicide attempts. And one of the things that were overwhelmingly hearing … is students are craving engagement.”

Tools and resources

They came to campus as young adults pining to foster new relationships, create lifelong memories and learn in an experiential and meaningful setting. But COVID-19 instead has restricted gatherings, limited in-person educational opportunities, punished partying and tailgating, eliminated live football games and hampered dorm room movie nights.

“They really want to engage, and there’s this lack of engagement,” Newton said. “So I really think into our next spring semester, we have to find a way to engage our students. Because they were meant to have that human interaction.”

ISU police, he said, has a student advisory board — “the most talkative I’ve ever had” — and it’s partnering with ISU Student Government on tools for managing stress and finding connections. Last year, the department added a mental health advocate with a therapy dog.

“Having that therapy dog is amazing because … people leave with a smile on their face,” Newton said. “If we can put therapy dogs on every campus, I think would be a great thing.”

But the campuses and public safety departments need resources.

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“Mental health resources are something that we really need to look at over the next year,” he said. “If we could get a stabilization center, a mental health stabilization center in our area, we’d be much better off. Because we take the students to the hospital.”

Often, though, they’re “not hospitalizable,” Newton said. “But they need help.”

UI Department of Public Safety Director Scott Beckner said his department is experiencing much the same — an across-the-board rise in mental health calls.

“We are seeing so much uptake — like double the calls at the hospital,” he said. “Our officers are spending so much time there. ... Most of our calls there.”

UNI Chief Haire said the department’s request-for-welfare checks also have “probably doubled every week this semester,” and officers have received mental health training and been equipped with resources they can offer students.

“We did it already, but now we are we are extra heavy on the, ‘Hey, if you need to go to the counseling center, here’s how you do it,’” she said.

UNI has a counselor on call around the clock where officers can direct students.

“We are very much aware of the stresses that the students are under right now,” Haire said. “And it’s not just students to be honest. We’ve had a couple of calls for employees.”

‘Just keep going’

Iowa’s public universities participate annually in the National College Health Assessment, which for years has shown students reporting relatively high levels of stress, exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed and lonely.

UNI’s spring report — produced about the time COVID-19 was closing campuses across Iowa — found 70 percent of student respondents had moderate to high levels of stress. When asked about suicide, 35 percent — or 251 of the 717 respondents — said they planned it at least once. Another 29 — or 4 percent — said they had attempted suicide.

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Although 70 percent said they’ve never thought about suicide, 22 percent said they think about it rarely or sometimes. And 52 students — 7 percent — reported thinking about it often or very often.

A new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found the coronavirus has negatively impacted college and university students’ mental health — with 71 percent of the students interviewed nationwide reporting stress and anxiety have increased.

About 91 percent reported feeling worried about their or a loved one’s health; about 89 percent reported difficulty concentrating; 86 reported disrupted sleep patterns; 86 reported decreased social interaction; and 82 percent said they have heightened concern over their academic performance.

UI junior Joseph Verry said he embodies all that — as a biomedical engineering major whose courses haven’t all translated well to online. Still, he’s chosen the virtual modality out of concerns over the virus.

“I definitely am feeling very stressed,” he said. “It expresses itself more as a lack of motivation and just not feeling the will to continue to do my schoolwork that I know I need to get done.”

Typically a diligent student, Verry said, “this year I can tell that I’ve been procrastinating more and not keeping up on my studies and classwork.” But he started therapy this fall.

“It’s definitely helped,” he said, citing tools his therapist has given him to overcome obstacles to starting his classwork. “Because that’s the biggest step, is starting to do classwork. Because once you do that, then you can just keep going.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

TO GET HELP

Iowa’s public universities each offer counseling services. Additionally, if you need mental health assistance or know someone who does, you may contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

• Call: 1- (800) 273-8255

• Visit, including online chat: suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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