Mental health resources available for students now more than ever
by Caroline Swillen
When Audrey Boyle stepped on campus as a freshman in the fall of 2020, navigating the College of Charleston in the midst of a pandemic was pretty stressful.
Thanks to mental health resources, she found her way.
“I feel like coming into college as a freshman was really hard,” said Boyle, now a senior. “Kind of navigating that process through COVID and during 2020 was hard, however, joining a sorority and just really trying to put myself out there really helped me.”
In the last decade, more students have become more open to discussing mental health concerns more than ever.
“I feel like I am more open to talk about mental health concerns because it feels more acceptable now,” said Boyle. “There are so many resources and now people can feel more open and accepted when talking about their concerns.”
Natalie Elaine, a 1994 CofC graduate, said her friends didn’t talk about their mental health back then.
“Mental health was never something many people talked about back in the day,” said Elaine. “I don’t recall specific resources being available to students regarding just mental health. Now more than ever, people seem more open about it.”
In recent years, there has been a decrease in the stigma around mental health. People have become more open to talking about concerns, seeking help, and acting on their concerns.
Susanna Sharpley, Counselor at CofC, acknowledges the change she has seen in college students over the past decade.
“I do think a lot of students realize there is a decrease in the stigma around talking about mental health,” said Susana Sharpley. “People acknowledge the resources such as counseling but there is still a disconnect between some people and the resources.”
Kathleen DeHaan, who has been teaching at The College of Charleston in the communication department for 25 years, has definitely noticed a deterioration in overall student mental health.
“Students' mental health also seems to be more fragile,” she said. “I don’t know if it's because it's easier now to ‘wear it’ or if there really has been a deterioration in college students. Students' anxiety has increased.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also played a large role in affecting mental health as so many felt isolated, lonely, depressed or anxious.
No doubt this was partly why South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster worked to increase resources in public schools for mental health support last year by 66% from the previous year.
Like most universities, CofC moved to online instruction, which was bound to take a toll on students’ mental health.
DeHaan definitely believes that “COVID has messed with students' mental health” and although she doesn’t hear “COVID” mentioned as a reason for student stress as much as she did in the immediate aftermath, it’s still taking a toll, particularly with their attention span.
But DeHaan believes it’s multiple things combined in today’s world that impacts student mental health - from high media consumption showing “a mean world” to the increased financial pressure many feel as tuition has increased and financial aid has become such a burden.
“Laptops and cell phones have become a detriment to student learning,” she said, noting the constant distractions the technology provides while constantly feeding students’ “fear of missing out.”
All of this leads to more stress on mental health.
As an effort to get students back to a healthy mental state, CofC added more mental health tools for students as well as faculty and staff.
Students For Support was one such tool. There is a number students can text to get virtual support or set up a time to chat with a student counselor.
Anna Saracino says working with S4S has been great hands-on experience plus a great resource for students.
“Most of the time people who come in and talk about homesickness or sometimes it's like friends and family issues or relationship problems,” Saracino said. “But it's giving me a lot of really good practice for my future.”
While Students For Support is great for someone needing to talk things out, CofC also has a counseling center for more specific mental health needs.
“A lot of the time the counseling center will refer people to us if they feel that it's not an urgent or pressing issue or vice versa if we find that there's something out of our control because we are volunteers like we're not licensed or anything,” said Saracino. “We make a lot of referrals to the counseling center. So we kind of work together. But it is two different things.”
Sharpley said the counseling center’s mission has changed over the years as student concerns have become more serious.
“In the past it was short term help, lots of crisis counseling,” said Sharpley. “We spend a lot of our time putting out fires, meaning we are seeing as many students as we can on a small budget. We are underfunded, but the need has been increasing so much which results in us doing as much as we can do.”
CofC also added resources to help faculty who also might just need a boost of encouragement or help.
DeHaan also said the efforts to support faculty with both their own mental health as well as deal with student mental health issues have been very useful.
“College of Charleston has a program and benefit that is a nice perk. It helps us with marital concerns, dying parents, problems etc,” said DeHaan. “We are all getting older and we have the same challenges - aging parents and children getting older.”
And DeHaan has certainly noticed a change over the years as more resources are readily available to students. She remembers having two different students 20 years ago having to be admitted to local behavioral health units. Today, there are more options even on campus.
“Mental health definitely isn’t a new topic,” DeHaan said. “Now, the ability for students to get help through local schools has really changed.”
Saracino doesn’t have any hard evidence that student mental health is declining but in her time with S4S, she has definitely noticed change.
“I do think it's declining more,” she said, pointing out it could be because more students are becoming aware of the resources. “But overall, I think the whole college population in general just has a really hard time, especially with depression and anxiety. These are the two most common things [we] see.”