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‘Our mental health matters’: Students struggle with mental health during unusual semester

| Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused over 230,000 deaths in the United States since the first case of the virus nearly nine months ago. One concern of the pandemic, beyond the direct physical health impact of the virus, is its mental health impact. 

College students are just one of the groups feeling the mental health impact. A recent survey found that 75% of college students reported feeling increased stress and anxiety due to coronavirus. A Notre Dame mental health survey found 18% of students to be under “severe” mental distress.

Students at the University have been hit especially hard this semester. With 1,416 reported cases throughout the semester to date, Notre Dame has had more cases than almost any other school of comparable size

Notre Dame has seen its fair share of headlines in national news as well this year, adding to an already controversial semester. The University not only dealt constantly with the COVID-19 pandemic but also with a contested presidential election, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett — and the two separate demonstrations — Father Jenkins disregarding COVID protocols on the national stage, the loss of two first-year students in a car crash and most recently, students storming the field after the football team winning a hard-fought game against Clemson.

Dane Sherman | The Observer

Notre Dame students have been advocating for increased awareness for mental health and more action from the administration to address stress. The student senate passed a resolution in August to formally address students’ concerns to the administration, and the University recently created a 24/7 telehealth line.

Problems have been exacerbated as cases have spiked causing more people to be placed into isolation units, students who are immunocompromised having difficulty getting tested and, now, students having anxiety concerning their ability to make it back to their families in time for Thanksgiving.  

Sophomore Ely Rodriguez said these converging events on campus have affected her mental well-being in relation to her personal identities.

“All of my identities [have been] playing a part in my mental health because of the world and what’s going on in it,” Rodriguez said. “This semester has had a lot of additional stress beyond the academic rigor because it is Notre Dame. There’s been a lot of things hindering me from being able to perform at my best academically, socially and emotionally.” 

Freshman Benjamín Rascón Gracia is immunocompromised, with an autoimmune disease that could flare up if he were to contract the virus. He said he has lived this semester in fear of accidentally catching the virus that he might be unable to fight off.

“It is difficult going through almost nine months of constant vigilance towards COVID, especially since it’s had negative mental health effects on me,” Rascón Gracia said. “The high anxiety around a potential hospitalization is also constantly present. It’s extremely disturbing to think that a normal interaction could put my life at risk.” 

Megan Brown, director of the McDonald Center for Student Wellbeing (McWell), said she is working hard to help campus through these turbulent times. 

“Feeling lonely and isolated is normal, especially during this pandemic,” Brown said. “Students who feel isolated or homesick should reach out to old friends, new acquaintances, family and hall staff. Connecting with others and talking about our feelings helps us to cope.” 

Senior Grace Dean, student government director of health and well-being, said she is passionate about improving campus mental health. Throughout this semester, she has been working on a plethora of policy goals to assist the student body during this time, including passing a resolution during an August senate meeting to formally address mental health when communicating with the administration.

Dean said she wished the University would alter its attitude toward students who have contracted the coronavirus.

“On an administrative level, the University has certainly improved in its COVID-19 response since classes began,” Dean said. “However, it’s concerning to think about the detrimental, and often avoidable, impacts on students’ emotional well-being that contact tracing, system delays or testing process glitches may have had. Seeing a shift away from blaming and shaming students is an encouraging step, and I hope that our University leaders continue cultivating a positive narrative rather than a negative one. Making others feel bad for being in isolation or quarantine isn’t conducive to anyone’s mental health.”

Junior Elaine Carter, president of Active Minds — a student-led club that tackles mental health issues at the University — spoke about some of the frustrations she has had this semester in regards to mental wellbeing. 

“The hardest thing in getting through all this is the immense lack of authenticity on the side of the administration in terms of talking to us as a student body,” Carter said. “People saw the things on the sidewalk that ‘you’re doing what many people thought was impossible.’ It’s seeing something like that for me just disregards the struggle of it. It glosses over the difficulty a little bit.” 

Freshman Isabela Tasende spoke to her experiences traversing the pressures of school life amplified by coronavirus and the losses experienced earlier this semester. 

“The complete lack of academic breaks has made it hard to prioritize self-care,” Tasende said. “Schoolwork, grief and the stress surrounding the global pandemic all pile up, leaving students exhausted and unmotivated. Still, the Notre Dame community provides a silver lining. If it weren’t for the support of my friends, I don’t know how I could’ve gotten through the semester.” 

Freshman Sofia Casillas has also experienced an intense semester made harder by pandemic. Casillas has been placed in quarantine on three separate occasions — none on her part but through contact tracing of her roommates.

“Throughout my freshman year, I think there is a lot to be said about adapting to college through a refreshing experience away from your family and your home,” Casillas said. “But I had a lot of issues in my dorm community, which led me to feel that I was not supported. I had issues with friends. Not feeling as though I have a support system and then being thrown into quarantine three times broke me.” 

Casillas spoke to her experiences of feeling blamed by hall staff and her rector for going into quarantine and how those in positions of power have not recognized the wide range of mental health symptoms she’s experienced. 

“For people that might already be more introverted, they can slip through the cracks,” Casillas said. “And that’s a big issue. You don’t want them to slip through the cracks. There are resources but people don’t feel comfortable reaching out, and those in power don’t recognize people in pain. All of these terrible things I’ve experienced make me wonder why I’m here at Notre Dame because I feel like I’m not living.” 

Earlier this semester, Notre Dame rolled out a 24-hour telehealth service to try to deal with the rising issues students are experiencing and has worked to call all those in isolation or quarantine every couple of days.

In response to questions of belonging felt amongst students, Brown points to the need for a more inclusive campus through small actions of inviting others in and creating a more inclusive environment around us.

“To help, we can all be more attentive and inclusive,” Brown said. “Invite others to participate in activities, while maintaining physical distancing and wearing masks, even if they are not a part of your ‘friend group.’ Small acts of care also boost the well-being of the giver, the receiver and the witness of the act.” 

With social isolation and other mental health mindsets from the pandemic, Dean said she wants the University to help more in backing up its students, not just banking on students to be encouraging to those around them.  

“Notre Dame students are resilient — it’s just the nature of who we are as the student body,” Dean said. “However, we shouldn’t have to be so resilient all the time. Instead of taking our community’s natural resilience for granted, University leadership should place greater value on interacting authentically with one another and showing our humanity during trying times.”  

Editor’s Note: This story originally credited Mariah Rush as co-writer for this story. The Observer regrets this error.

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About Dane Sherman

Dane Sherman is a first year Philosophy major from Seattle, Washington.

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