For Kama Sharma, a junior neuroscience, psychology and French triple major, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new struggles to maintaining good mental health. She said one of the biggest is helping someone through a mental health crisis with no face-to-face contact.
“Conversations about mental health are hard to have over Zoom,” Sharma said. “Finding ways to support another person when you do not have those resources available in person is the hard part.”
With the onset of the pandemic and resulting social distancing protocols, mental health has become a major point of concern for Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fear and anxiety about the pandemic can be “overwhelming,” and social distancing can make people feel isolated and lonely.
The traditional dynamics of a college semester have also changed as classes and clubs either meet online or social distance. There will be no in-person classes at Pitt until at least Sept. 14, and the University has implemented strict health and safety guidelines surrounding social distancing.
The pandemic has also worsened Sharma’s personal anxiety. Sharma — the president of Active Minds, a club with a focus on promoting conversations around mental health on campus — said the current climate leads to stress.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about when COVID or social distancing are going to end,” Sharma said. “A lot of that has been causing what our ex-president has called chronic stress. It’s not acute stress but chronic stress, which is a constant state of discontentment and stress in general.”
Sharma added that the current situation is causing people who would not experience symptoms of depression, anxiety or stress to experience them to an extent. She did note that people are now better able to comprehend the importance of mental health services and empathize more with individuals experiencing mental health problems.
“It’s bringing people to the realization of what mental health is and how to take care of yourself,” Sharma said, “because even someone who might not have depression might be experiencing isolation, which is a symptom of depression.”
The University Counseling Center is open and accepting students experiencing mental health challenges, according to Jay Darr, the center’s director. Some of the services available for students include virtual or telemental health services, such as workshops, outreach activities, drop-in conversations, 24/7 crisis support as well as group and individual therapy.
Darr added that all types of responses are normal to a changing environment, including fear, worry, irritability, decreased ability to concentrate and changes in appetite and sleep. He also said it is important to recognize the impacts the pandemic has had on preexisting barriers to accessing mental health care, particularly for BIPOC communities.
Not all students are completely satisfied with the University’s programming, though. Danielle Floyd, the chair of the wellness committee for Student Government Board, said while Pitt has been flexible this semester, it should have put more emphasis on student opinions in transitioning counseling services.
“The University still has a long way to go to help,” Floyd, a sophomore economics major, said. “I want to see the University include more student leaders in their decision-making process so they can better make decisions to support us.”
Darr said there are challenges the UCC is facing in a virtual environment, but it’s working to address them.
“There are challenges with providing services during an abnormal situation,” Darr said. “We continue to become smarter in the provision of telemental health services, overcoming inevitable technical interruptions, being flexible as our team continues to manage working from remote locations, creating and encouraging participation in opportunities for self-care, support and action.”
Floyd added that SGB is also playing a role in the improvement of mental health on campus through various programming. Floyd said all SGB programs for Mental Health Awareness Month, which will be celebrated in October, will focus on addressing both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement with the virtual roundtable, COVID-19, Intersectionality and Mental Health Workshop.
Floyd said she believes including both is important to address the intersectionality of broader social issues.
“We implemented programs to focus on how our rapidly changing world affects student’s mental health,” Floyd said. “And what factors such as race, inequality and now COVID-19 play a role in negatively impacting a student’s mental health.”
SGB will also host multiple programs for the month with more than 15 events involving 10 different student organizations. Floyd said having many smaller programs will help further engage the student body in such conversations.
Sharma also said she believes Pitt needs to do more to expand mental health services on campus or help students better recognize existing programs through the UCC.
“Just how little students at Pitt know how many resources are available to them is amazing,” Sharma said. “There was a survey, which revealed that a lot of students didn’t know that the Counseling Center was open during the summer.”
Sharma said she is forming a mental health student coalition with representatives from Active Minds, National Alliance of Mental Illness, SGB and Oakland Outreach to work on a proposal to have mental health chairs in other student organizations.
“This is something that we’re hoping to change this year, where groups will have mental health chairs, which will be trained in UCC policies and procedures,” Sharma said. “They will be trained on how to handle someone in crisis and get the student the help they need, so that we can correctly support them.”
Sharma also said while the situation is not ideal, the future seems promising. She said she hopes that with increased focus on mental health, people take the issue seriously and it becomes more accepted in society.
“Everyone is realizing the effects of coronavirus on their own mental health regardless if they have a mental health illness or not,” Sharma said. “Seeing where the conversion about mental health proceeds will be key.”