According to a Healthy Minds Study, during the winter and spring of 2021, 47% of UO students reported having major or moderate depression, 41% reported having generalized anxiety and 25% reported having positive mental health. We as a society are currently on “season 3” of this pandemic amid new surges, and mental health on college campuses does not seem to be getting better.
Students, staff and faculty at UO say their mental health challenges, often fueled by high workloads or performance expectations, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many believe that structural changes, in addition to individual mental health support, are needed.
Many faculty, staff and students continue to face intense workloads and high expectations that impact their mental health, and the pandemic has amplified this.
Mariko Linn, assistant director and education and prevention outreach director at Counseling Services, has worked at the university since 2010. She said students and counselors around the country are struggling right now.
“Demand for more mental health support is nationwide, and we do feel that at the University of Oregon,” Linn said.
Linn explained there has been a change in the type of support students need. Many students do seek long-term therapy, but currently there is an increase in need for direct, immediate support. The number of students that come in as “in-crisis” and need to talk to someone immediately has drastically increased since the pandemic started, she said.
Graduate Employee and student Rajeev Ravisankar expressed that being a graduate student is difficult. He said the lack of adequate resources from the university and the pandemic has made that harder.
“There is natural stress that comes along with being a graduate student and a GE, but all of these sorts of stresses such as food, income, housing, taking care of kids, etc. have been exacerbated because of the pandemic,” Ravisankar said.
Many undergraduate students are feeling an increased weight of stress, anxiety and burnout, the feeling of being worn down from work that tends to lead to exhaustion. Angelica Meija, a fourth-year pre-medical student, said, while online classes may have been easier for some, school is still quite hard on students.
“Previous generations don’t understand. My dad always gets surprised by the number of hours I work, but it’s necessary to get a future job or secondary degree,” Meija said. In her experience, most graduate programs and jobs require students to have extensive work and extracurricular experience, on top of doing well in their courses.
“Honestly the majority of burnout concerning work doesn’t necessarily stem from school but rather the extra stuff that we were expected to have,” Meija said.
Professors have also been impacted. Dr. Leslie Jo Weaver, a global studies professor whose research focuses on mental health, said she has to battle to take care of her own needs and her student’s needs.
“Students see a slice of what professors do and aren’t aware of the service-related obligations that we have. We have research expectations, we may sit on committees or have other leadership obligations. It’s always been a juggling act, but it’s been exacerbated because of the pandemic,” Weaver said. “Professors are real people who are taking care of children who are out of school or a parent who is ill or whatever it might be. We struggle too.”
Throughout the pandemic, professors have had to figure out how to adequately teach students online and support those who are struggling more than usual, while continuing to handle high expectations for their research. Many professors are still feeling that strain nearly two years in.
Additionally, Weaver said faculty and staff do not have the same resources and access to counseling as students, but they do have some, such as a robust insurance plan that covers mental health. One way that faculty and staff cope is with each other, finding community between one another.
“Personally, I have colleagues and friends where I share triumphs and struggles, but it’s a little harder because we don’t go to conferences or have face-to-face meetings,” Weaver said. “But these communities are very important.”
Workload and mental health issues have also contributed to staffing shortages. Linn said the university is losing student affairs and support services staff members who are “reevaluating what their values are with work and family.”
According to Linn, “Those who are in student affairs and support services are relying on each other or what is left of our team to continue to provide the same level of support. How do we continue to provide quality support knowing we are lacking resources and staff?”
More than an individual approach
With many individuals struggling, faculty, staff and students say larger, structural changes — in addition to individual support — need to be made.
Ravisankar was the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation president last year and has worked closely with the university, health care and resources. He said the university tends to handle mental health on an “individual-level” rather than focusing on “material needs” and communal support.
An individual level of support means looking at mental health as a personal endeavor, such as going to therapy or attending a wellness workshop. However, only tailoring mental health support to the individual ignores the external factors that impact someone’s wellbeing, Ravinsankar said.
“I don't see that many resources available on campus, other than too many workshops that focus on stress on an individual level,” Ravisankar said. “Yes, that is part of mental health, but it has become too much a part of the university's approach to dealing with mental health. There should be more support for the Duck Nest and similar initiatives on campus that can meet students' needs.”
Ravisankar also mentioned seeing material needs addressed, such as food insecurity and having options like subsidized meals or free meals.
UO provides support for students like mental health consultations, an after hour crisis and support line, counseling sessions and wellness events and workshops. While classes were online between winter 2020 and spring 2021, the university made academic accommodations such as suspending academic disqualifications for the 2020 winter term, refunding the online credit fee, extending the deadline for spring 2020 graduates to complete requirements and allowing students to take more classes pass/no pass during certain terms.
Another example of a structural change is that UO allowed faculty on tenure track to pause their timelines. Weaver said that there should also be an increase in salary for career instructors not on tenure track.
“That is a big equity issue that is not specific to the UO,” she said. “There also needs to be better support for students because students will confide in us about their struggles, and sometimes we don’t know where to send them or how to help.”
Kate Mills, assistant professor of psychology, echoes the same sentiment as Rajeev and Weaver. Mills has been working in academia her whole career, starting as an undergraduate, earning a Ph.D. and now working as a professor.
“Mental health has been something that, it’s interesting, it’s often a point of research in many of the labs I have been a part of, but interestingly it is not a focus in conversation on how the structure of academia impacts mental health,” Mills said.
Since the pandemic hit, meeting the high performance standards of academia has become harder for many.
“[COVID] has been personally very difficult. There was an internal motivation to push through and to handle things,” Mills said.
Mills’s feelings of working to push through and expand personal capacity are something that many people are currently going through. Circumstances have changed, but the structure of academia has not adjusted, Mills said.
“For instance, we get messages and emails that say ‘take care of yourself,’ but at the same time there is an increase of expectation to deliver, but the structure did not change,” Mills said. “The burden was placed on individuals rather than the structure to change. Few initiatives were fantastic, but they were only awarded to some faculty.”
Throughout the pandemic, UO faculty, staff and students have faced heightened mental health challenges, and many say that addressing mental health on an individual level isn’t enough. They want to shift the focus of the conversation to structural and cultural changes that will improve community member’s well-being.
Mills, Ravishankar and Weaver say that work expectations have remained high despite pandemic-related challenges — or, as Ravishankar said, “Everything kept moving, nothing slowed down.”