Nearly 75% of the students who filled out a form from Baldwin Wallace University’s counseling center said the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. (Baldwin Wallace photo)

Baldwin Wallace University‘s counseling center added a new line to the paperwork students are tasked with filling out ahead of their initial sessions this year, asking students how COVID-19 has impacted them.

Nearly 75% of the students completing the forms noted the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, said the university’s counseling center director, Sophia Kallergis. Students also reported feeling like they’ve missed experiences, are more isolated, or that their academics have been affected.

“Whatever mental health issues or concerns students are already having, adding a pandemic on top of it, adding hybrid learning, adding social distancing, all of that is impacting them,” Kallergis said.

And it’s not just at the Berea campus. A recent report from The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and two other education groups found 56% of the 3,500 students surveyed across the country earlier this fall felt at least somewhat anxious about the pandemic. And one out of every five students said they felt constantly anxious.

But new funding aims to try to address that. As the coronavirus rages on, the state allocated $13.5 million in federal funding for Ohio’s colleges and universities to expand their mental health and counseling support for students. The boost comes during a time when the pandemic has already put a financial strain on many institutions.

Like many of its peers nationwide, Cleveland State University shifted its existing services online earlier this year. Short-term therapy became available via telehealth. Crisis walk-in sessions transitioned to crisis call-in sessions. The school offered group counseling, too, including on how to mindfully cope during the pandemic and a facilitated discussion on countering racism after the death of George Floyd this year.

“A lot of what the university counseling center does that can’t be done by outside providers is that consultative role with the campus about how to help promote student mental health,” said Katharine Oh, director of the counseling center.

The university received $394,798 on this front. Oh said it’ll go toward efforts such as an artificial intelligence mental health chatbot that can check-in with students throughout the day. CSU also is hiring a temporary case manager and five new part-time counselors. This will alleviate wait times for students and allow officials to directly reach out to students who test positive for the virus or those who are quarantining, she said.

Baldwin Wallace got $125,825. Kallergis called it “such a gift” and is researching how she’ll spend it on additional services or potentially expanding and diversifying her small team of six part- and full-time staffers.

“When I’m looking at vendors and speaking with vendors, I’m asking about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) providers and providers that specialize in LGBTQ+ resources,” she said, adding that’s an especially big priority given the reckoning on race the country is facing.

Across the state, Youngstown State University is using its $335,340 to add more counselors to “help increase awareness of available services, provide prevention programs and meet the increased mental health needs of students during the pandemic,” according to a recent news release. The university also is offering more self-help and prevention options, like a specialized yoga class and gifting students with “wellness bags.”

Kent State is using its $962,273 to increase telemedicine options and expand its after-hours resources. Lorain County Community College was awarded $151,691 and plans to spend it by adding a 24/7 counseling service and launching weekly COVID-19 support groups.

But even with innovative offerings amid a chaotic year, Cleveland State reports there hasn’t been a large uptick of students using these services. Baldwin Wallace reported that while counselors have a full caseload, the amount of students they’re seeing has decreased slightly. And nationwide, a recent survey of 144 institutions found that 29% fewer students were looking for services compared with last fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cleveland State’s Oh said the staff is seeing and helping those students in crisis, but others may face more barriers right now in seeking support.

“A lot of our students may feel isolated,” she said. “So I think every reach-out is more of an effort for students when they’re sort of isolated at this time.”

Out-of-state students who have left their campuses may struggle in accessing their schools’ telemedicine mental health services.

“Mental health professionals cannot practice across state lines because of jurisdictional issues,'” said John Dunkle, senior clinical director, higher education at The Jed Foundation.”If a student is in Pennsylvania, but I’m a clinician licensed and practicing in Illinois, I can’t provide that service with that student.”

Other roadblocks could be the already-full plates some students are juggling, which can be amplified by the pandemic’s pivot to digital learning.

LCCC student Abbey Sears is coupling her third-year coursework with an increased workload at her job as a home-health aide. She hasn’t used any of her school’s counseling offerings, choosing to instead decompress by watching TV shows or talking to her boyfriend. But that downtime is limited, she said, because the amount of work professors have tasked her with this semester is “absolutely insane.”

“They’ll be like, ‘Well, I know you’re having a hard time,'” she said. “But then they’ll still give us a bunch of assignments and not give people leeway if it might be a little late. I feel like they just don’t listen to students.”

Baldwin Wallace student Zaire Hall-Hamilton, a resident assistant involved in on-campus activities, is busy, too.

“This year, I’m really recognizing like, ‘Oh, s—, my mental health is kind of really, really bad,” Hall-Hamilton said. “And I need to get the initiative in me to just kind of talk about it, and just get through it, and try to get myself to be better.”

The sophomore, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, said they did fit in a recent session with an on-campus counselor. The counselor mentioned an additional LGBTQ group talk therapy offering that sounded interesting, but Hall-Hamilton said it was during a time when most students have class.

“These resources are here,” they said. “It’s just I think scheduling them is not very convenient for students.”

Hall-Hamilton’s classmate Emily Muench, who’s part of a club that aims to provide mental health resources to students, said a stigma still surrounds the topic on campus.

The sophomore said training and education on how to better communicate with others would be beneficial for faculty, staff and students alike.

“The way you frame something can completely change the meaning, even if you don’t think about it,” she said. “Someone did this to me, they go, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And saying that, instead of, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What’s wrong?’ You know, ‘What’s wrong with you,’ and ‘What’s wrong,’ there’s a two word difference, but that is a big difference.”

And as the semester winds down, certainty remains in short supply. Muench said she feels anxious when thinking about her future. Resentment comes in waves when she sees people partying while not wearing masks. She said it’ll be hard to shake the feeling of missed opportunities.

“We’re not going to get this year again,” she said. “I wonder junior year if we’ll get anything. I think it’ll stick with us for a long time, because I don’t know when it will be back to normal.”

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.