By KIPHANY HOF
Associate director of UNK Counseling
The mental health of college students has been declining over the past decade and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. Deteriorating mental health among college students has reached epidemic proportions in the last five years.
Many students tell counselors in the UNK Counseling Center they feel like they are the only one who feels lonely or overwhelmed by anxiety, and they wonder what is wrong with them compared to their peers, who they perceive as having it all together, enjoying college life. And yet, according to the data collected from UNK students in the National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association (Fall of 2020):
- 39% of respondents reported “stress” as the second factor negatively impacting academic performance
- 32% named “anxiety” as having a negative impact on their academic performance
- 52% of our students felt hopeless within the last 30 days of taking the assessment and 40% reported feeling worthless
- 49% positively endorsed feeling lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale
Students who feel this way are not alone and we need to do our part, as a campus community, to destigmatize mental health and connect students with systems of support.
Overwhelming feelings of anxiety appear to be the most common presenting concern among students that has been increasing over the past four years. Mid-terms, final exams and the upcoming holiday season are additional sources of stress this time of year. While anxiety is a common term a lot of people use to describe feeling stressed, it stems from worry about the future – of things that might or could happen, yet haven’t necessarily happened yet, or may never happen. It is no wonder, then, that college students are anxious. We expect them to be thinking about the future constantly when we give them a syllabus of what is due over the next 16 weeks in multiple classes, or when they need to plan, in October, what classes they will register for next semester; planning their careers and securing jobs post-graduation.
Worry could also stem from family conflict. Where will I go over the holidays and winter break? Who can I turn to when I need help? Financial challenges are common, and students feel the pressure of trying to balance work, classes and their social needs. And, with the addition of COVID, our current environment seems to be at a baseline of high anxiety as students, faculty and staff are concerned about the unknown: Will campus close? Will I get sick? Should I get vaccinated? What happens if I have to quarantine? What if my family gets sick?
In and of itself, feeling anxious is not necessarily a negative thing. Anxiety moves people to be prepared, to study, to plan, to hold themselves responsible, or to take action toward achieving goals. Anxiety only begins to be problematic when it impairs concentration on a regular basis, interferes with forming and maintaining relationships, disrupts sleep, keeps us from living in ways that we value, and when it feels like it is impossible to control the worry.
Why now? Why is it so much worse? What’s changed? Depending on who you ask, there are a multitude of answers and theories as to why college students’ mental health is one of the main concerns of most university presidents, provosts and chancellors across the nation. Finding out the “why” has meaning as we consider how to be helpful. Knowing the “why” is not necessary for change.
A variety of resources exist to support college students with their mental health. The UNK Counseling Center employs professionally licensed mental health practitioners who work with students to improve their mental health. However, some students are reluctant, for various, valid reasons, to utilize counseling services. Many times, students may not need the expertise of a professional mental health counselor and yet may not be able to identify other helpful options. Here are a range of resources students can use to attend to their mental well-being:
- The UNK Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling sessions to currently enrolled UNK students (graduate and undergraduate). Students who are registered for full-time coursework on campus can receive three counseling sessions per semester at no cost: $10 per session thereafter. If a student is not enrolled full time or is taking online courses, they can pay the opt-in fee to receive counseling services. Services are by appointment only (unless life-threatening). Business hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and the phone number is 308-865-8248. An on-call counselor is available after hours by calling the main office number and following the telephone prompts.
- “Let’s Talk” is another service hosted by the UNK Counseling Center. “Let’s Talk” is an opportunity for students to speak one-on-one with a counselor from the Counseling Center about non-emergency concerns in a confidential space. These consultations are free and open to all students. First come, first served. Upcoming dates are 2:30 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, and Wednesday, Dec. 8, in the Memorial Student Affairs Building Room 162C.
- The UNK Counseling, School Psychology and Family Science Department offers free counseling services to any student through their practicum graduate student clinic. Those seeking services with a practicum graduate student are eligible if their counseling needs fit a short-term counseling model and there is no previous history of suicidal or homicidal thoughts. For more information, call the UNK Counseling Center at 308-865-8248.
- Free, anonymous mental health screenings provided by ULifeline: http://www.ulifeline.org/unk/
- Students may not feel comfortable accessing services on campus. South Central Behavioral Services is the local community mental health agency in Kearney. For students with no insurance coverage, South Central offers counseling services based on a sliding scale fee: https://www.scbsne.com/
- For students who have insurance coverage and would like to see a counselor off campus, please contact your insurance provider to see which mental health counselors they cover.
- Download free apps to assist with managing stress and anxiety. Panic Relief, Calm and Insight Timer offer a variety of skills to help with sleep, panic attacks and guided meditation.
- For students who prefer a telehealth option:
Choosing not to use the available resources can oftentimes be the barrier to improving – it is easier, sometimes, to put off attending to our mental health when it feels like there are more pressing tasks needing attention. Prioritizing mental health and focusing on personal growth is hard work that takes time and effort when most students are already feeling exhausted. We hope students will make their mental health a priority.