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Mental Health Takes Priority on Main Line College Campuses

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Photo by Adobe Stock / Jacob Lund

As colleges in the area work towards a post-pandemic normal, mental health resources are a top priority for students and parents alike.

“It’s like we’re all trying to make up for lost time,” says Imaani J. El-Burki of life at Swarthmore College these days.

Among other things, the post-pandemic return to campus has meant a surge in enthusiasm for events and programing at colleges and universities everywhere. At Swarthmore, El-Burki and other staff and faculty members are making a concerted effort to entice students to connect. “COVID helped us recognize how much we all value the events and cocurricular experience,” says the assistant dean and director of Swarthmore’s Intercultural Center. “Many of our offices are getting really creative about reengaging.”

At Swarthmore and other smaller schools, the sort of things necessitated by lockdowns are finding their way into cocurricular programming. “We don’t offer any online classes, but we now consider virtual guests,” says El-Burki. “That allows us to draw from a larger pool of speakers who we normally couldn’t get on campus.”

college mental health

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But this brave new world isn’t without its challenges. Illustrating that point, El-Burki’s out-of-office email response includes a list of emergency resources for her advisees, most notably on-call counseling services and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. “We have the same general trends as elsewhere—the increased mental health issues, the anxieties,” she says, “even when some of the anxieties are just part of normal life for a college student.”

In response to recent campus shooting incidents in other parts of the country, University of Delaware president Dennis Assanis reminded the community to “remain vigilant and prepared,” listing the resources UD has in place, including a free phone app that connects directly with campus police. Assanis’ written address included links to student counseling services and a 24-hour helpline, along with resources for faculty and staff.

El-Burki notes that she’s talked to more parents this year than in the past. While she recognizes that post-COVID life has been a tougher adjustment for students with preexisting conditions, her conversations with parents often revolve around preserving privacy. “They don’t need to know where the student is each minute of the day,” says El-Burki, adding that parental pressure creates its own set of challenges for administrators and faculty. “If we helicopter students, we’re depriving them of the opportunity to grow into adulthood. Life is full of ups and downs—every sad or negative moment isn’t a diagnosable illness.”

It hasn’t been easy for the Class of 2023, who’ve had to reset their social lives and dial down their expectations year by year—sometimes month by month. “The kids I knew who struggled the most transferred to be closer to home, or they just didn’t come back,” says Wilmington’s Sydney Stevens, a 22-year-old senior at Penn State Brandywine.

Stevens pivoted in 2020, embracing her online courses as she kept herself motivated and moving forward. She was also grateful that so many professors offered open-book tests and multiple opportunities to pass.

In some ways, the restricted return to campus in 2021 was tougher for Stevens. “Wearing masks in person last year was so difficult,” she says. “You couldn’t see reactions when you presented, when you talked. People didn’t know who you were, even if you’d had Zoom classes together. It’s like we lost our social skills, and we picked up social anxiety in its place.”

college mental health

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“When it comes to communicating, students have lost some confidence,” says Jody Fleckon, a licensed counselor with Shelby Riley, LMFT & Associates in Chester Springs. “It happened to adults, too,” she says. “For most, it’s not so much the germy part, it’s the interrupted life—and a new awareness of our own reluctance, or even fatigue, to get back out there.”

One symptom is a lack of motivation. “I hear from kids that they don’t have the same sense of energy, which can be depression or just being off your stride,” Fleckon says. “You have to learn to piece out where anxieties are coming from.”

When it comes to mental health issues, students now have access to an ever-widening range of good and bad news, and many are feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility to care for their peers. “We’re impacted by seeing people treat each other badly,” Fleckon says. “We were all asking, who are the mature people in the world—in my family? It feels hobbly for some of us to come back out.”

When it comes to mental health issues, students now have access to an ever-widening range of good and bad, and many are feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility to care for their peers.

Like their parents, students function best with consistency and structure. “Things are getting a little more normal,” says Stevens. “We’re shaking hands on the volleyball court, switching sides again—and I’m hoping to graduate.”

Stevens says that last part with a laugh.

College Prep for Parents

So your kid is headed to college—and she’s not the only one whose world feels like it’s on a heavy tilt. Self-care may be a buzz word, but there’s more to it than bath bombs and mani-pedis. Here are some tips from licensed counselor Jody Fleckon to “help you feel more centered in a chaotic world—at home or away.”

1. Start recognizing and nurturing the many parts of yourself. You’re more than your job, a single relationship or a hobby.

2. Hone in on what nourishes you. Wellness is figuring out what makes you feel joy. What truly inspires you?

3. Evaluate how you spend your time (and the people you spend it with). Are you independent and self-motivated, or do you need to be directed?

4. If things get too overwhelming, talk to a professional. Processing change is a skill. Don’t go it alone.

Related: Your Guide to Education on the Main Line