Ever since Katelyn Holmgren transferred to the University of Florida for the fall semester, mental health and homesickness have interfered with her day-to-day life.
Holmgren previously attended the University of Dayton in Ohio, where she was on a pre-physical therapy track.
After two weeks into her senior year at UF, she said stress over classes, schoolwork, the pandemic and adjusting to moving away from home has piled up.
Her dog, Lena, offers her emotional support during times where her stress and homesickness creep in.
“I feel like all animals, not even just dogs or her [Lena] specifically…can sense when you need that extra boost,” Holmgren said.
For many college students, the pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health. The transition from online classes at home to almost fully in-person classes has made it even more difficult for some to adjust to a new routine.
The UF Health adult outpatient psychiatric clinic is seeing an increase in patients over 18, UF Health spokesperson Ken Garcia wrote in an email.
The clinic saw a 106% increase of adult patients who attended their first appointment in the month of August between 2019 and 2020. The numbers have increased again by 4% in 2021.
For scheduled new adult patients, the clinic saw a 21% increase in August between 2020 and 2021, as reported to UF Health by UF’s Department of Psychiatry.
“Having that really abrupt change in my routine – it was shocking,” said a UF student who asked to remain anonymous for health and privacy reasons. “And it was really hard to get to a place where I was functioning again, doing my things and talking to people.”
The student said virtual classes combined with the concern of increasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Florida, affected her mental health and ability to socialize on campus this semester.
“Now that I’m being reintroduced back into that environment, it feels more like a chore than anything to make friends and be involved,” she said.
The student said she dealt with mental health issues even before the pandemic, but quarantine, staying home and taking classes online for more than a year only added more stress and struggle to her well-being.
She has been to therapy twice, but as most services shifted to operate remotely during the pandemic, she stopped.
“It’s been a really distressing and difficult journey to try and get at least some semblance of stability in my life again,” she said.
She plans to seek help through UF’s Counseling and Wellness Center but said it’s difficult to find the time and mental strength to make the call.
“The world is going through a pandemic right now and nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” the student said. “It’s a lot bigger than us, and I feel like it’s taking a toll on everybody.”
According to the most recent Healthy Minds Study, which surveys tens of thousands of college and university students across the U.S., 41% of students screened positive for depression over the spring semester, and 34% screened positive for anxiety. They are the highest levels observed by the study. However, this year’s results are part of a steadily increasing trend, and students surveyed said that while the pandemic impacted their mental health, it wasn’t the root cause.
Grace Parker, an 18-year-old Santa Fe College freshman, said her mental health wasn’t affected as much by the shift from online classes to in-person classes, as her senior year in Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Florida was held in-person.
Parker said having her last year in high school in-person helped her adapt easily to her in-person classes at Santa Fe.
“I think if I was online, it would have made it 10 times harder than with this adjustment,” she said.
It is possible COVID-19 and shifting from online learning to more in-person schooling this August have impacted how many students are seeking UF Health services, Garcia wrote, but the reason is not specifically known.
Marcia Morris, a UF associate professor of psychiatry and associate program director for student health psychiatry, said loneliness is the No.1 stressor in college students today, especially with the increase in social media usage and decreased face-to-face contact in the last 10 or 15 years.
“But COVID accelerated that kind of loneliness,” Morris said. “And that is something I hear every day from students.”
One of her research studies on psychiatric medication usage on campus found that in the last 10 years, the use of antidepressants, anxiety and stimulant medication doubled. About a quarter of college students have used psychiatric medicine in the last year.
Research is still being done to understand the impact of the pandemic on psychiatric medication use in college students, but other studies show an increase of almost 38% in anti-anxiety prescriptions in adults nationally during the pandemic.
Morris said it is crucial that college students not only reach out to on-campus services, off-campus services and to family, friends or any other support system but also to have self-compassion and recognize that many students are struggling during these difficult times and transitions.
“I won’t ever want anyone to feel hopeless because they will recover,” Morris said. “It just can take some therapy, and sometimes medicine and also lifestyle changes like exercise and meditation, and then that wonderful social support.”