Chris was attending a Christian university in north Alabama when the coronavirus pandemic struck. At his home, Grandpa Joe lived with Chris’ parents and was at high risk for disease.
During the height of the pandemic, Chris’ family worked hard to limit their exposure and attempted to shield Grandpa Joe from the risk of catching COVID-19.
Chris’ stress increased as he wondered, “What if I get [COVID-19] or if I’m a carrier? What if I give it to my grandfather?”
Stressors of college
He needed to attend in-person classes for his major and also wanted to be socially connected — to be a normal student. As the pressure continued to rise, the stressors of college life during a global pandemic began impacting Chris’ mental health.
Is Chris unusual? Not really.
According to Mary-Claire Marshall, a counselor at the University of Mobile Student Success Center, college students frequently experience stress associated with the transition from adolescence to adulthood and finding their own identity. Making new friends, juggling the pressures and stress load of college courses, and managing the financial concerns of independence and the cost of college all add to the pressure.
In 2017, the Pennsylvania State University Center for Collegiate Mental Health Annual Report revealed a growing number of college students who sought mental health counseling over the previous four years. Anxiety and depression ranked as the top two concerns.
Rich Yoakum, director of counseling and wellness at Samford University in Birmingham, said technology and social media can amplify feelings of anxiety and depression and contribute to a sense of isolation among students by creating the perception of connection.
“Students are, of course, able to compare themselves with others now because of social media,” Yoakum noted. “The top common stressor is the anxiety that’s connected with feeling connected or feeling enough.”
Anticipatory grief related to the pandemic heightened all the normal stressors for students like Chris, Marshall pointed out. Pandemic-related changes in social structure coupled with a lack of in-person gatherings left some learners without peer support, which is critical to a student’s feelings of well-being.
Marshall added, students also experienced “group trauma” during the pandemic.
Left in limbo
“While they typically would have mentors or additional support, as the entire world was experiencing this pandemic together it left many adolescents and young adults in limbo,” she explained.
For many students like Chris, campus resources are available to provide professional counseling and spiritual guidance for managing the stress of college life.
At Samford, students find support from resident advisers and a team of faculty and staff who engage with them and invest in their lives, Yoakum noted.
Professionals in the university’s counseling and wellness center meet with students to assess mental health concerns and help them learn coping skills for dealing with anxiety and depression.
The University of Mobile also offers free individual counseling to students with a wide range of concerns.
Because of COVID-19, these services transitioned to an online format in addition to in-person sessions, which resumed last fall, Marshall said.
UM has continued offering virtual sessions, she added, and many students with anxiety or social concerns have responded well to the options.
Baptist Campus Ministries campus minister Matt Daniels talks with students at the University of North Alabama in Florence who sometimes struggle with a sense of identity and also grapple with next steps after college, like marriage and finding a job.
Daniels speaks intentionally with students about mental health from a scriptural view and offers practical steps toward healing through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Pandemic-related restrictions caused many UNA students to experience a “year of isolation,” Daniels said.
University administration permitted Baptist Campus Ministries groups to continue gathering during the pandemic, he noted, and many students came to events seeking community.
“Our BCM grew tremendously — we tripled in size this year — simply because we provided two things: We provided truth, and we provided community.”
UNA’s BCM sponsored two mental health events last year.
At each, Christian counselors instructed students on what the Bible says about mental health, the importance of focusing on Scripture and truth, how to identify stressors and when to seek professional help. At one, students also learned how to develop coping techniques, like doodling to regain focus or squeezing a stress ball for frustration.
What Scripture says
“Jesus commands us to not be anxious,” Daniels said. “Jesus didn’t ever say, ‘Don’t be mentally ill,’ because we’re not in control of that.
“We reminded [students] what Scripture says: that they are a child of God, redeemed [and] clothed in God’s righteousness. We told them, ‘You’re all of these things that are true, and that are real, which means you don’t have to be anything that the world says.’”
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