One year of social isolation, loss of loved ones, and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a deep toll on people's mental health as seen around the world and within the Penn community.
Students have turned to Counseling and Psychological Services' telehealth services and student-led organizations like Penn Initiative for Minority Mental Health and Project HEAL: Help to Eat, Accept and Live to cope with the pandemic's effects on their mental health. While CAPS has not experienced any notable change in the number of students seeking services, according to CAPS Senior Clinical Director Michal Saraf, other organizations have seen an uptick in individuals seeking help since the onset of the pandemic.
College sophomore Nicole Harrington has been to CAPS every semester she has been at Penn. She's had an overwhelmingly positive experience, which she attributes to having a Black female counselor during her first year with whom she could identify, and who she still keeps in touch with. Harrington has joined the CAPS advisory board and wants to help CAPS improve its reputation among students. This semester, she has been attending virtual counseling sessions. Harrington likes to make the most of any situation, but said that the virtual experience is not ideal. On top of missing the connection of an in-person conversation, she said she has found that there are technical issues and distractions when attending a session from home.
"With the transition to online sometimes it gets laggy, or there’s a dog barking or things like that, so it’s hard," Harrington said.
Even with the pitfalls of virtual sessions, Harrington said she has still found her CAPS sessions to be positive and productive.
All CAPS programming — including both drop-in and standing appointments — has been conducted virtually since the outset of the pandemic in mid-March. CAPS later expanded its hours from 45 to 57 hours per week in October 2020 in an effort to reach students across time zones and to meet student needs, regarding the pandemic specifically as well as typical college stressors.
“People are coming in for a range of concerns that are similar to the range that we have always seen, but now the context [behind those concerns] may be the pandemic,” Saraf said. “Sometimes concerns due to the pandemic are standalone, but often it’s in concert with other things that people are struggling with.”
In Penn’s COVID-19 fall check-in survey, 81% of undergraduate respondents said they had felt nervous or anxious at least several days in the past two weeks. In a December 2020 United States Census Bureau survey, more than 42% of people in the country reported symptoms of anxiety or depression that month and respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 reported higher rates of anxiety and depression than any other age range.
While some students found support at CAPS, many other students connected with student-led organizations — including Project HEAL: Help to Eat, Accept and Live, which is a national organization that works to eliminate barriers to receiving treatment for eating disorders. Within the Penn chapter, students fundraise for the national organization as well as facilitate conversations and workshops about eating disorders and body-positivity.
College sophomore and co-leader of the Penn Project HEAL chapter Audrey Singer said that she has received an increased number of individuals reaching out and looking for help as well as looking to become involved.
College sophomore Hannah De Oliveira has become involved with Project HEAL over the past year, after first coping with her own eating disorder at the beginning of the pandemic.
De Oliveira said she entered into treatment for her eating disorder in spring 2020 and though the program was initially in person, it became virtual after she stepped down to a lower level of care. She said she found the switch to virtual therapy challenging.
“I think you just connect with people in general more when you’re in person and you have better experiences both therapeutically and in general with people when you’re in person. So I think that transition was really hard,” De Oliveira said.
She said that recovering during quarantine was particularly difficult because there was so little she could do to stay active. This fall, however, she became involved in Project HEAL to continue her own recovery as well as to use her own experience coping with her eating disorder during quarantine to help other students.
Kristin Szostak, the site director at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia in Center City, said that people who suffer from eating disorders have been particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic largely due to forced isolation. She added that eating disorders often manifest when individuals are looking to take control of an aspect of their lives and are in almost survival mode.
"No one alive has experienced something like the pandemic," Szostak said. "This can certainly manifest itself in a number of different presentations, including in an eating disorder."
She said that since the onset of the pandemic, the Renfrew Center has seen a striking increase in outpatient providers referring people for treatment. Szostak added that she believes conversions around both mental health and eating disorders have become less stigmatized over the past years and the pandemic has aided in the destigmatization.
"Given the acuity of the situation we are in globally, this has really launched the conversation [around both mental health and eating disorders] more than it might have come up organically," she said. "These things are more at the forefront and people can more comfortably say 'I am really struggling right now, I really need some help.'"
For College first year Amy Vidal, destigmatizing conversations around minority mental health is why she joined Penn Initiative for Minority Mental Health, a group dedicated to creating safe spaces for discussion of mental wellness for minorities at Penn.
“Transitioning to Penn from the high school level to the college level has been challenging for me personally,” Vidal said, adding that PIMMH was a place where she was able to openly discuss these challenges.
College first year and PIMMH member Naveen Farook had a similar experience. She said that not being able to experience her first year at Penn as planned was a major disappointment, and that while Penn closing on-campus housing this fall was the right decision for the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, it was still difficult for her to reconcile that with her suffering mental state.
“Your mental health doesn’t really take into consideration the logical circumstances," Farook said. "Your mental health just depends on how you feel, and how you’re reacting to everything that’s going on around you."