The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone’s lives in innumerable ways. However, for many college students, it has come at a highly vulnerable point in their life. Young adults already face a unique set of challenges but add isolation, remote learning, increased time on social media, and anxiety about the future, and you have what could be an explosive cocktail leading to increased depression. In fact, in a recent study of college students, 44% of respondents mentioned that they were experiencing some depressive thoughts during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while 71% indicated that their stress and anxiety had increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 5% used mental health counseling services.
As October is National Depression and Awareness month, Our Money Matters wants to draw attention to the severity of the problem and let students who are suffering know that resources are available and not alone. To get additional insight, Our Money Matters interviewed the CEO of Open Mind TeleHealth, Dr. Craig Beach, to understand why students may be suffering more from depression right now and how they can get help if they need it. Dr. Beach’s unique perspective comes from his work as a forensic and general psychiatrist.
Q. Dr. Beach, what behavioral changes could indicate depression or anxiety in a young adult?
A. The signs can be varied and depend on the individual, so it’s essential to recognize any drastic changes in behavior. However, some general signs include talking about feeling hopeless or guilty and losing interest in favorite activities, school, or sports. Also, look for changes in sleep patterns or eating habits, talk about suicide, death, or depression, pulling away from friends or family, and engaging in risk-taking behaviors.
Q. Why do you think the pandemic has increased depressive thoughts in college students specifically?
A. It’s not unusual for college students to suffer from increases in anxiety. Many are away from home for the first time and trying to balance their studies and social life. Some have to work to pay for their college or have taken on the burden of student loans. Others may experience loneliness. However, COVID added a whole new layer of complexity to what is already a time of significant change for young people. In a study conducted with students from Texas A&M University, other factors seemed to contribute to depression that were exclusively attributed to the pandemic, including increased concern for the health of loves ones, finances impacted by COVID-19, concerns over academic performance due to virtual learning, living at home again, and social isolation.
In fact, even before COVID, the burden of student loan debt was escalating anxiety and depression. For example, research has shown that nearly half of individuals with debt also had mental health issues and a majority of those with mental health issues (86 percent) say that financial worries made their mental health worse.
Q. Is there a correlation between college drinking and depression or anxiety?
A. Suicide, addiction, and depression have a very close and interconnected relationship, and more than 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from depression, have a substance abuse disorder, or both. It's not unusual for someone dealing with depression to turn towards drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. However, substance abuse increases the severity and duration of depression, so it's a vicious cycle. And many substances impair judgment, so someone that normally would not act on suicidal thoughts may be more emboldened because of their lack of clarity while on alcohol or drugs.
Q. One research study showed that 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help. Why do you think they aren’t seeking counseling?
A. The biggest reason often cited is the fear of stigma. While that’s starting to change, many young people are afraid that others will find out they’re seeking help and labeled "mentally unstable." Some also think that everyone else their age probably feels the same way. Therefore, they should be able to deal with it on their own. However, as a society, we need to feel comfortable seeking treatment for mental illness the same way we would if we had a physical condition.
Q. Dr. Beach, what can they do if someone is concerned about their mental health or about someone they know?
A. First of all, don’t wait. If you're not feeling like yourself, get help. If you are worried about someone else, talk to them right away and practice prevention, ensuring that guns or pills are safely secured. And take advantage of the many resources that are available where advice is available such as:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. You also can contact them through their website.
Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ community: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. You can also contact them through their website.
You can also call 911 for immediate help or the new number that the FCC established, 988, a nationwide, 3-digit phone number for Americans in crisis to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors.
Inquire about the counseling services that your college offers.
The bottom line is that depression is treatable. Don’t wait or be afraid to ask for help because many professionals and resources can advise you or your loved one on what to do.
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