‘We’re not going back’: Students talk mental health as pandemic drags on
Any Google search of COVID-19 will bring up lists of symptoms — fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath and more — but these lists don’t always account for everything. Missing is the impact the disease has had on the mental health of people, regardless of whether they contracted the virus or not.
As months of social distancing stretched on, people started taking increased blows to their mental health. From new academic pressures to the struggles brought on by isolation, Rice students were no exception. The Thresher talked to eight students about how the pandemic affected their minds and wellbeings.
Some students interviewed said that back in March, they did not think COVID-19 was as serious or as lingering of a situation as it would soon reveal itself to be.
“At first I thought it was all fun and games,” Zahrah Butler, a Duncan College sophomore, said. “I've lived off campus the whole time I've been here, so housing wasn't an issue for me and I was like, ‘Oh, I've taken online classes before. It can't be that bad.’”
For some students, the lack of stressors that accompanied in-person interactions on campus initially alleviated stress on their mental health. Aurora Kesler, a Brown College senior, said that in the beginning, online interactions made coping with her mental health issues easier than before.
“I found it easier to make it to my classes on time since they were online and I could turn off my camera,” Kesler said. “I experienced a lot of social anxiety [before the pandemic]. Since I wasn't in spaces where there were a lot of people, I didn't have to worry about that.”
But as time dragged on and online classes came into full swing, students said they began to feel the weight of new external stressors and mounting academic expectations in a situation they had initially viewed as temporary. As the situation worsened over time, Kesler realized that her senior year was not going to be what she always imagined. Her club soccer season was cancelled and her summer abroad never happened.
“In March, April, May we're like, ‘OK, like this is going to be a temporary thing.’ Then in June, July, August, I realized, no, it's like, we're not going back,” Kesler said. “That's what it feels like. I just have a whole new set of stressors that I haven't really figured out how to deal with.”
For Butler, the shift to online classes presented more difficulties than she expected.
“Once we got back to classes, being online seemed to slap me in the face,” Butler said. “As soon as we went back to online classes, we had an exam that I did horribly on. I was like, ‘Well, I guess this is the end of me and my academic career,’ and it was really stressful.”
Most students interviewed said it was the disruption of normalcy that affected them, as the coping strategies they normally relied on — such as getting coffee with friends on a difficult day — became impossible in a world where close contact with people was a danger and non-essential outings were effectively eliminated.
“I had a lot of tools and coping strategies that work for me,” Madison Miller, a Lovett College senior said. “For me, it was really hard to get up for my 9:25 on Tuesdays, so I met my friend at the [Rice Memorial Center], and we walked to class together. That little thing is not something that we can do anymore.”
Even as some students return to Houston and interact with each other on campus — albeit with 6 feet separating most of them — their remote peers do not reap the benefits of that change when it comes to adapting their coping strategies.
“I'm completely online right now, so most of my interactions are through a screen, which takes away that interpersonal connection,” Miller said. “It’s huge, because a lot of my coping comes from support with friends.”
Online interactions don’t allow for the same connection that in-person interactions do, according to many students, and they present changes in socializing that can be difficult to adapt to.
“There were so many days in the summer and even in the fall where my only social interactions were through Zoom,” Gordian Liu, a McMurtry College sophomore, said. “When I'm feeling more depressed, I'm much more likely to interpret my interactions with people as hostile or dismissive, even if they're not, and I feel like Zoom exaggerates that, because it's hard to read people's social cues over Zoom.”
When Rice students unexpectedly went remote in March, their social interactions weren’t the only thing that were disrupted. For some, so were their connections to mental health resources. Anvita Kandru, a Brown College junior, said she was supposed to see a psychiatrist in Houston but when sent home was unable to go to her appointment and stopped prioritizing her mental health care afterwards.
“It had already been such a big effort for me to go through and call different people. At that point, I was like, ‘I just can't do this anymore,’” Kandru said. “‘I’m just going to have to wait until I get back to Houston,’ which wasn't the smartest thing in hindsight.”
Other students, such as Liu, said the pandemic gave them an opportunity to seek out mental health resources.
“One thing that's come out of this experience is that for the first time I've reached out to a therapist, which was a huge step for me given that I have a history of downplaying my own experiences and avoiding articulating them,” Liu said. “It was nice to have someone listen non-judgmentally and be able to help me process what I'm going through.”
Rice’s Wellbeing and Counseling Center had to adapt its everyday functions as the majority of students that they serve vacated campus without a decreased need for mental health resources. They also needed to work with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the federal law that sets national standards to prevent the disclosure of a patient’s private health information without their consent.
“In March as everything started shutting down, we went to quickly figuring out HIPAA-compliant virtual options for folks,” Elizabeth Plummer, associate director of the counseling center, said. “We had a lot of concerns about keeping everybody's confidentiality and not using systems that would be out of compliance with our ethics but also, how can we quickly serve students? That's our mission.”
Trying to serve students who left Texas where Rice counselors are not licensed to practice presented issues of its own, according to Plummer, since serving students out of state would typically be illegal. Plummer said that state professional counselor licensure boards allowed the counseling center to provide consultations, but now that COVID-19 has stretched on as long as it has, they're having to work with each state's board to figure out which states their clinicians can get licensed in.
Despite challenges, the counseling center is trying to find outside resources for students who need help managing their mental health. Plummer said that the counseling center’s care coordinator Kerry Park works with students to find resources specific to their area.
However, outside referrals can present issues of their own. Katerina Arroyos, outreach director for Rice Alliance for Mental Health Awareness, said she faced such issues when she went to Rice’s counseling center before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From my own experience, I think that Rice needs a better support system for students who have to get their mental health care from other places,” Arroyos, a Will Rice College sophomore, said. “When I went [to the counseling center], they told me that they couldn't provide the main form of help ethically because they don't have people who are trained in eating disorders, and had the responsibility to refer me out.”
According to Plummer, an active eating disorder does require specialized care, which the counseling center can’t provide. In the time between her initial visit and eventual referral, Arroyos said she felt frustrated and like she did not have a source of support in an already difficult situation.
“I think the challenging part is that a lot of the steps you have to take on your own to connect yourself with all these resources. Even though my [resident associate] was offering to help me send emails to my professors, a lot [of] those decisions were on me,” Arroyos said. “When you're in a state where you need that kind of help, you're not really ready to be making those kinds of decisions.”
Back to school
As the fall 2020 semester began, requests for services in August remained relatively the same amount as in years past, according to Plummer. However, that’s changed in September.
“September has been much busier for us,” Plummer said. “What we're noticing is that more students are seeking services, but they're also seeking more sessions than typical.”
According to Timothy Baumgartner, director of the counseling center, while there is not enough data to draw any solid conclusions from, the counseling center is on track to at least match student use from last year despite the decreased number of students on campus. Fall 2019 itself saw roughly a 150 percent increase in utilization from the previous year, Baumgartner said, which allowed the counseling center to hire two additional clinical counselors.
Although Rice students are now able to return to campus, many have remained remote or are still dealing with the same complications brought on by the pandemic as they were in the spring semester without a guarantee of some of the spring semester’s support systems, such as the option to take all classes pass/fail.
“It can be really difficult, especially if you have a certain type of mental illness like depression that makes it hard for you to do things,” Kandru said. “There was lenience from Rice in terms of academics and stuff [in the spring], but I feel like at this point that's gone. The expectation is that you're back to normal, but nothing has changed.”
Some students said that they’ve been feeling the absence of casual social interactions on campus that they used to take for granted. Ethan Denson, a Lovett senior, said he recently had a conversation with his roommates about what was taking a toll on their emotional state this semester.
“My roommate [said] ‘I never realized how much physical touch means even among friends,’” Denson said. “He can't high five his friends or give them hugs. Those things really bothered him.”
While being away from campus negatively impacted the mental health of many students interviewed, the return to Houston came with its own stressors for some.
“There was a lot of stress around [coming back to campus], especially since I was getting a new roommate because my [original] roommate had other plans for housing this year,” Arroyos said. “I've been in recovery from an eating disorder and so that was also something that was very challenging for me, imagining what the food situation on campus was going to be like.”
A significant challenge that Alex Townsley, an executive board member of Rice Alliance for Mental Health Awareness, mentioned is the lack of connection between the mental health resources that Rice provides and students’ understanding of what that entails.
“I think we do a good job of telling people that there are resources, but we don't do a good job of telling people about those resources and exactly what happens when you call the counseling center and ask for an appointment,” Townsley, a Duncan College junior, said.
Beyond their own mental health concerns, numerous students interviewed mentioned that they want to be able to support the emotional and mental needs of their peers. Liu, a Rice Health Advisor, said that RHAs want to be there to support students whether by listening to their concerns or directing them towards resources.
“We [as Rice Health Advisors] as always really want to emphasize that we're always here. If anyone wants to talk about what they're experiencing, RHAs are trained on a wide variety of physical and mental wellbeing topics, and we can point you to or suggest some resources,” Liu said. “We want everyone to feel like they have people that they can go to who will listen non-judgmentally and will do what they can to support them.”
Miller said she intends to use the platform she has through student leadership roles to foster dialogue about mental health. As both an RHA and an academic fellow for Lovett, she said she wants to oversee panels discussing academic stress and mental health as well as explore potential discussion groups for students to openly discuss their mental health in an environment free from judgement.
Arroyos also sees the need for a place for informal open discussion about mental health between Rice students.
“[The Wellbeing and Counseling Center] is somewhere you have to go and schedule appointments. This is a very formal way of reaching out,” Arroyos said. “Definitely part of RAMHA this year is we're taking bigger steps to create that middle ground where we can connect people to resources.”
One way that some students are looking to support the mental health of their peers, the students said, is by reorienting the conversation of mental health from something that an individual focuses on to an ongoing community effort.
“A lot of times when we talk about mental health we just talk about self-care and what you can do for yourself. I think community care is just as important, if not more important,” Liu said. “I think we should look at mental health as very all-encompassing, because our material conditions affect our mental health.”
Liu said that mutual aid networks that have grown in prominence over the past summer show a way to provide support for the mental health of a community.
“Showing up for each other in tangible ways does so much for mental health, and there's always something that each of us needs, and something that we can provide for our community,” Liu said. “I really hope that everyone participates in Rice's emerging mutual aid network and also the Houston one that Rice should also pay attention to, because we are part of that community.”
Some students said they would also like to see more diversity and representation in the counseling center staff. This is an echo of demands made by Black students at Rice over the summer, including a demand for Rice to hire more Black counselors and therapists and have all members of the counseling center’s staff be trained on how to handle racial trauma.
“[Rice should] hire a more diverse staff if they can. Sometimes going into the office knowing I can only meet with a person who may not be of my racial identity makes me feel weird,” Butler said. “They may not understand the dynamics in my household or the way that I grew up.”
Efforts to support the Rice community should not end with raising awareness, Arroyos said.
“A lot of people, even though they know about the importance of mental health and have an awareness about it, they don't always know how to best apply it, or always allow themselves to apply those things to their own lives,” Arroyos said. “I think there's a lot of stigma that still exists, sadly.”
Overcoming that stigma and seeking help, however, can lead to great benefits, several students said.
“This is something everybody always says, but always reach out for help,” Butler said. “You may feel like an idiot, you may feel like a fool, but it's totally worth it in the end.”
More from The Rice Thresher
In light of the pandemic, campus organizations are trying to balance providing open access to sexual health resources while simultaneously not encouraging unsafe COVID practices. While some students have stated they are choosing to change their sexual behavior to accommodate safety regulations, others voiced their choice to remain sexually active.
Filled with exotic plants, mouth-watering vegetables and natural ecosystems, the Houston Botanic Garden, which opened to the public last month after years of construction, is dedicated to cultivating, preserving and displaying a diverse collection of plants from around the world and from the local environment. Less than 15 minutes from Rice University by car, the botanical garden is the city’s first. And at the helm of the project is Claudia Gee Vassar, president and general counsel of the Houston Botanic Garden — and a Rice University class of 1999 alumna.