It’s crunch time. Final projects are due. Exams are looming. The end of the semester, as always, brings a crescendo of pressure and anxiety.
Except this isn’t any typical semester. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global shutdown have escalated stress levels in ways students have never before experienced.
“This isn’t just business as usual. We’re not just working from home. We’re home from a pandemic trying to work. It’s a world-wide trauma reaction,” says Christopher Drost, associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
In a recent virtual meeting with University professors, Drost and Staff Psychologist and Coordinator of Alcohol and Other Drug Programs Kristie De Jesus explained that Montclair State students, like college students across the country, are dealing with challenging shifts in routines and expectations regarding family, school and work – beyond the regular year-end pressures.
Many are facing logistical concerns with home life not being conducive to learning. Some students feel overwhelmed with new online learning platforms and expectations of self-directed learning. Some are experiencing screen/technology fatigue while others are dealing with technology issues such as internet access.
Some are also tackling more dire circumstances such as food insecurity, economic instability, safety issues and, in numerous instances, they are dealing with the illness and/or the death of family members.
Finally, as it is for the general public, social/physical distancing is also exacerbating anxiety, depression and other mental health issues for students.
“Students are struggling with two differing messages from our society/culture at large,” says Drost. “Continue your life and fear for your life.”
Professors note that when they hold synchronous classes, students want to stay on to talk. “They want to connect,” says Emily J. Isaacs, executive director of the Office of Faculty Advancement. Isaacs added that graduate students – who tend to have no synchronous classes – were particularly lonely and are finding it a challenge to stay motivated.
“What is clear from talking to faculty is that the hardest teaching decisions we’re facing is figuring out how to reasonably help our students who appear to be struggling with mental health challenges in the age of COVID,” says Isaacs.
As the federal Centers for Disease Control encourages universities to ramp up counseling for overwhelmed students, Montclair State has responded to the call.
De Jesus says that CAPS is now offering “Let’s TeleTalk,” a more informal counseling session consisting of 5-10 minute phone calls. “It’s an opportunity to dial in and talk instead of setting up counseling.” In addition, regular full-length counseling is available by Zoom or phone, and the Connections drop-in group offers another option for students to talk to other students with the support of psychologists.
CAPS offers a wide variety of resources from more traditional counseling to downloadable apps on the website at montclair.edu/CAPS. Here are just a few:
Mental Health Apps (downloadable from Apple and Google Play Store)
Beyond encouraging students to access these resources, De Jesus urges instructors to “create a space for humanity” in their virtual learning.
Drost notes that there is more opportunity for regression for younger people in a crisis such as this. “It’s harder to do self care and to compartmentalize.”
“These reactions are normal,” says Drost. “It’s important not to judge them.”
Adds De Jesus, “They are having a normal reaction to an abnormal experience.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann.