The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on every person on the planet. Today’s college students, who faced isolation, school shutdowns, the challenges of distance learning, and loss of autonomy, were not immune.
Although the pandemic’s effects remain with young people in many ways, they are not immutable and can be managed, and even healed, says Robert A. Richards, LMHC, LCDP, Associate Director of Counseling Services at Bryant University and an adjunct professor of Psychology. Through their work in Bryant’s Office of Counseling Services, Richards and his colleagues help students discover — and rediscover — their strength, develop ways to cope with past traumas, make important connections, and find support.
After all, one of the most important ways we heal, Richards notes, is through finding strength in one another.
The effects of a global pandemic
COVID-19, he notes, caused today’s college students to lose vital developmental years that help inform how they mature — both personally and academically — form relationships, and interact with the world. “Our brains don't finish developing until we're 24 or 25 years old and people learn so much about themselves and how to be in the world between K-12,” Richards, a psychotherapist and educator with more than twenty years of experience who also practices integrative counseling and coaching through private practice in Rhode Island, notes.
“In many ways, the pandemic caused students to get ‘stuck,’ and afterward they were being challenged to operate at a different level academically and socially,” he suggests.
Everyone has been affected by COVID-19 differently, he adds. “Depending on your experience, your level of privilege, and your resources, the pandemic was very different,” says Richards, citing a quote that became popular during the pandemic: “We’re in the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat.”
“More than anything else, we crave connection, and part of that connection can be through shared struggle.”
“Each incoming class we’ve had at Bryant has had a different experience,” he says. Some young people lost loved ones, some experienced a change in economic standing due to COVID-19 related-job losses, others changing family dynamics from COVID-related stressors.
Navigating the post-pandemic era
As time passes, Richards notes, young people are coming to terms with their pandemic experiences. “We're seeing less of the acute struggles with interpersonal relationships, with time management, with academic stress, and avoidance,” he says. “Students have had more time to regroup, they've had two or three years of school and they've had more time to kind of catch up a little bit.”
In addition to campus counseling, Bryant students also have access to an array of academic support programs provided by the university’s Writing Center, Academic Center for Excellence, and Office of Accessibility Services.
The pandemic, Richards says, exacerbated pre-existing anxieties and mental health issues that already affected young people. An Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 37 percent of U.S. high school students reported regular mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic. A more recent study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders, suggests that when compared to a pre-pandemic group, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater internalizing problems.
“There was an illusion of safety and control that was shattered for a lot of people, especially for young adults,” he states. “Suddenly, all of the people they’re supposed to trust and feel safe around don't know what’s happening and the rules are changing every two weeks.”
That left young people with a desire for a safe, neutral place to talk through their anxieties, and a general de-stigmatization of mental health care has helped them to be aware of the signs of mental distress — and more willing to seek help and take steps to alleviate them. The Office of Counseling Services offers a variety of counseling appointments, from scheduled appointments to walk-ins.
Through these appointments, Bryant’s experienced counseling staff help students explore their moods and behaviors, provide fresh perspectives, and offer a better understanding of emotions as well as coping mechanisms.
“We really try to meet the students where they're at in that moment,” says Richards, who notes that sessions are free of charge and the staff follows strict professional codes of confidentiality.
Coping mechanisms picked up from quarantine have lingered in the post-lockdown landscape, as well, especially for young people regularly required to adjust to new experiences and environments, often for the first time, says Richards. “For a lot of people, the pandemic reinforced an avoidance strategy, the idea that if it feels like it's too overwhelming, then I can just not do it.”
“We all should be ready to ask each other, ‘What do you need right now in this moment?'"
Post-pandemic stress and burnout can be expressed in a range of ways, says Richards, including social avoidance and withdrawal, or signs that a student is feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. In addition to talking through issues with professionals, one of the things that is beneficial for adolescents and college students with post-COVID issues, says Richards, is re-connecting with the foundational elements of self-care and good habits that might have been lost over the course of the pandemic. “It helps them to realize ‘I do have some control over what's happening to me,’” he says.
To that end, Bryant's Office of Counseling Services also offers wellness programming including meditation, yoga, lunch discussion sessions, and workshops.
Connecting with the greater community can be helpful for young people, as well. “More than anything else, we crave connection, and part of that connection can be through shared struggle,” says Richards, who praises the resilience he’s seen amongst students — and their willingness to help others. “It’s so important to remember that as dark as things can seem, we're not alone — even when it feels like we're alone. We can always ask each other for help.”
He points to the university’s Student Support Network (SSN), made up of members of the Bryant community who are taught by the Counseling Services staff to recognize and respond to signs of distress and crisis as well as best practices for best supporting their classmates and connecting them with resources that can provide help.
The program embodies an important idea, Richards notes: It is incumbent on all of us, he argues, to look out for each other. “We all should be ready to ask each other, ‘What do you need right now in this moment?'" he states.