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How the pandemic impacts college students' mental health

College students have long been prone to stress, anxiety and depression. And three out of four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 report poor mental health tied to the pandemic, according to the CDC. Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our ongoing series, “Rethinking College.”

AIRED: January 19, 2021 | 0:07:50
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight,

we look at how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of college students.

Students have long been prone to stress, anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, three out

of four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 report poor mental health tied to the pandemic.

Hari Sreenivasan has our story. It's part of our ongoing series Rethinking College.

And a warning for some viewers: This story deals with the subject of suicide.

VICTORIA CANALES, College Student:

The nights leading up to it had shown that, like, there was going to be some sort of culmination.

And, that night, I was kind of worried that I was going to do something that I might regret.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nineteen-year-old Victoria Canales was alone the night she almost gave up

everything, alone in a three-bedroom apartment in Austin near the University of Texas campus,

no friends. Her roommates stayed home fall semester.

No family. They were hundreds of miles away in Laredo.

Panic led her to stop taking her antidepressant medication.

And her good grades were slipping away, too.

Unsure where else to turn, Canales dialed her school's crisis hot line.

VICTORIA CANALES: I just told them like: "I'm feeling pretty bad. I'm

not doing too well in my classes. I'd kind of just like somebody to talk to."

HARI SREENIVASAN: They kept her on the phone for an hour-and-a-half.

VICTORIA CANALES: And then, by the end of it, she told me:

"I would like to just be able to hang up and know that everything's going to be OK,

but, based on kind of what we were talking about tonight, I think I'd like to send

the campus mental health officers over just to go check and make that sure everything is OK."

HARI SREENIVASAN: They sent someone over.

And Canales decided in that moment to make some changes, because she wasn't OK.

Many students are not right now.

Drop a pin on a map of the U.S., and the story is much the same,

heightened isolation, depression. Anxiety, mental health crises, courtesy of a college experience

stripped almost entirely of campus life, tradition and structure, on top of a pandemic.

HANNAH RICHARDSON, College Student: College seems like a really far away concept right now.

JACK FOLEY, College Student: No matter who you are, it really sucks.

BIANCA ADDISON, College Student: It's really messed with my head

in ways I'd never thought possible.

LILY ARTZ, College Student: It's hard to sleep at night,

because you just sit in your apartment all day.

ALEXA PATRICK-RODRIGUEZ, College Student: I think almost all of

my friends have started going to therapy since this semester started.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 560,000 undergraduate students didn't enroll this fall compared to 2019.

Even in normal times, those who report mental health struggles are nearly twice as likely to

drop out of school than their peers. There are stressors for those studying remotely.

JASSMINE GUERRERO, College Student: It's very exhausting. Definitely, Zoom fatigue is real.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And for those making the trek into classrooms.

MARIA BARROS, College Student: Since I commute a lot, I try to be as careful as possible,

especially knowing that a few of the people that I know that have gotten the virus have

been really, really sick. They were very near to death.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24

reported having seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, according to the CDC, and nearly

70 percent of college presidents now say student mental health ranks among their top concerns.

STUDENT: I think, for a lot of us, it just feels like a bit of a loss of that experience.

VARUN SONI, Vice Provost for Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention,

University of Southern California: Yes, been an incredible challenge.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Varun Soni is the vice provost for campus

wellness and crisis intervention at the University of Southern California.

VARUN SONI: Before COVID, students were already struggling with anxiety,

depression, and loneliness. And that has only been exacerbated.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, Soni says,

before the pandemic, 65 percent of college students were wrestling with anxiety,

30 percent with a mental health condition, and 10 percent with thoughts of suicide.

Soni says the string of recent American crises,

combined with an overreliance on technology and social media, are making today's young

people more anxious than ever before. And COVID isolation has made it worse.

VARUN SONI: We're tribal people as human beings. We need a tribe. And

college is a place where many students find their tribe. And so I think, for a number of students,

80 percent of students around the country say that COVID has negatively impacted their mental health,

their spiritual health, and their career aspirations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Young people like Jassmine Guerrero,

a junior at California State University at Northridge, say the main problem is,

students feel like they're in all of this alone emotionally and academically.

JASSMINE GUERRERO: It's been rough this semester.

STUDENT: I don't even feel like I'm learning crap.

JASSMINE GUERRERO: Yes.

We attend campus to learn and to network, and we're just getting learning. I know a lot of

people that say, hey, I'm just turning in assignments without even knowing if

the information is staying with me, you know?

HARI SREENIVASAN: I met up with Dr. Micky Sharma on Ohio State University's famous Oval,

usually packed with students, now largely deserted.

Here, at one of the biggest schools in the nation,

student plans have been altered by the tens of thousands. They won't get those

experiences back. Sharma directs OSU's student life counseling and consultation service.

How do you help them get over the fact that they had plans; the plans changed?

DR. MICKY SHARMA, The Ohio State University: The first thing we

do is validate the student's feelings as real. What you're talking about is loss.

I would say to the student, instead of focusing on things being normal again,

what I want you to focus on is creating

your new normal. We can proactively be a part of what we want the future to be.

WOMAN: Did you meet your goals? How do you feel after this full semester online?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Most schools offer mental health and academic counseling for students, but virtual

and in-person visits, against expectations, have been either flat or down for many schools.

And that's another sign of trouble, says Varun Soni at USC.

VARUN SONI: So, I think all universities are concerned about what's happening in

home environments, in remote environments, abroad, because we're not as connected as we used to be. I

think what all of my colleagues around the country are wrestling with is, what are we not seeing?

VICTORIA CANALES: This is my first mariachi gig.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Victoria Canales says spring semester at the University of Texas

could be a repeat of fall. Not much has changed about her situation.

VICTORIA CANALES: So, I have been seeing my therapist. And it's been

a really good experience. I also got back on my antidepressants.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She also plans to take fewer classes and find more time for fun.

VICTORIA CANALES: I do want to spend more time kind of like on the things that I enjoy.

I love music. I love playing instruments. Hopefully, next semester, I'm just going to try

and push myself to do the things that I know I will enjoy. I don't know. We will see.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She will take it a little easier on herself,

and take the days one at a time, until things get back to normal.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you or someone you know needs help,

the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day.

Write this down. Call

1-800-273-8255.

In the final installment of Hari's series next week, we will look at how schools are providing

special programs to boost skills and allow students to get short-term credentials for work.