As a pandemic check-in every week, University of Hawaii public health professor Denise Nelson-Hurwitz asks her freshman and sophomore students to anonymously submit words that describe their feelings as they work from home.

The colorful word cloud that pops up on her screen displays “stressed” and “overwhelmed” every time.

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, UH professors and counselors say they are growing concerned about an unprecedented number of students experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, loss, panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

University of Hawaii at Manoa Mall usually is full with students changing classes and walking thru campus on a wednesday at midday. Lone masked student during COVID-19 pandemic. October 21, 2020
Professors and counselors at the University of Hawaii say more students are telling them that anxiety and stress are affecting their studies than before the pandemic began. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Students have lost their gigs at restaurants, bars or retail shops. They tell their teachers about sleeping troubles and incessant worries about paying for rent, tuition or food. Some have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Students who had conditions diagnosed pre-pandemic say they’ve worsened. Others are experiencing anxiety and depressive thoughts for the first time.

Professor Denise Nelson-Hurwitz had her class make a word cloud to portray their feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy Denise Nelson-Hurwitz

In just the first three months of this semester, Nelson-Hurwitz says dozens of students have inquired with her directly about mental health matters, family troubles and coursework extensions.

The number of students who fail to complete assignments is more than public health professor Catherine Pirkle has ever experienced in her teaching career.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re doing crisis management more than anything else because our students are struggling,” Pirkle said. “A lot of these students are starting their lives and careers and there are real long-term implications to what happens if they drop out or fail classes.”

Social Losses

During her mandatory two weeks in quarantine in her new dorm, 22-year-old graduate student Heather Ann Franquez Garrido said she took solace in staring at the majestic monkey pod tree outside her window.

“Thank god for that — if it were some buildings that would have sent me spiraling,” she said. “It was this beautiful, large monkey pod and I’d just talk to the tree for 14 days because I couldn’t talk to anyone else.”

Then, as soon as her two weeks of isolation ended, Oahu entered another lockdown just as the fall semester began. Garrido has met just one classmate in person since courses began two months ago.

To cope, Garrido works in the campus garden or weaves coconut fronds into earrings, hats and baskets. She got involved with a youth-led COVID-19 awareness and social media campaign.

UH Manoa Graduate Student Heather Garrido.
It’s the first time UH graduate student Heather Garrido has lived away from her home in Guam. “It was extremely difficult both physically and mentally,” she said of the 14-day quarantine she went through before courses began. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Still, there’s a sense of disconnect on campus. Interactions are fleeting.

“It’s ‘hi’ and ‘bye,'” she said. “You’re not staying in places long enough to build connections,” she said.

The loss of social interaction has been one of the hardest parts of new college life, especially for younger students, according to Allyson Tanouye, UH Manoa Counseling and Student Development Center director and psychologist.

“This may be their first big move away from family and their coping skills are not yet developed,” she said. “It’s relationship isolation but also academic isolation.”

Resources for Mental Health Emergencies

Uncertainty, stress and isolation has led to four or five emergencies in dormitories after hours, she said, some involving self harm or students wanting to go to the hospital.

Older students like Kaleonani Hurley are juggling doctoral coursework with new obligations, such as caring for children who would otherwise be in school or day care. Things have improved since completing classes and she can focus on writing her dissertation, but she’s never had time for therapy as a mother of two young children.

“I don’t feel the same kind of hopelessness I did in the spring semester,” she said. “I don’t know how I got through it, honestly. I mostly felt alienated, isolated and a little bit abandoned.”

Heavy Financial Woes

Angel Lynn Talana, a graduate student of social and behavioral health sciences, sent a survey to her peers as part of her coursework and found financial worries were just as pressing as the need for mental health therapy.

More than half of those who returned the survey said they felt tense, worried or anxious “often,” or “all the time.”

The University of Hawaii at Manoa received about $500,000 of CARES Act funds to support mental and behavioral health services. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Angie Soloman, the faculty coordinator of the Student Parents at Manoa program, said more students are asking about how and where to get rental assistance or what to do if they lost their health insurance.

“Many are unemployed and worried about next month’s rent payment, putting food on their table and not becoming homeless,” she said, noting she expects to see a wave of enrollment withdrawals because of housing instability or unemployment.

Counseling Cutbacks

The Manoa campus counseling center had to cut back on face to face visits because of virus transmission concerns. Counselors are focusing more of their energy on virtual workshops instead.

The Pandemic's Effect

“We really had to pivot,” said Tanouye, the counseling center’s director.

The number of students visiting the on-campus center is half of what it was the same semester last year. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s a trend seen by other counseling directors on campuses across the nation, she said, and may be because many of them are not on campus anymore.

The center has cut back from up to 10 sessions per student to four or six sessions to accommodate more people and reduce wait times, she said. The center offers virtual therapy sessions that students can attend remotely or in person using the center’s sanitized videoconferencing booths.

The wait for a first appointment is one week long— which is better compared to last year, but still longer than some would like.

There’s still a waitlist to get an intake consultation, and the center is just as understaffed as it was last year amid a pandemic-induced hiring freeze. The Legislature eliminated the planned budget for five licensed psychologists.

Students with health insurance are often referred to outside clinics. Tanouye says they’ll get more long-term therapy that way.

“This is still just the beginning of an unprecedented health crisis and fiscal crisis,” she said.

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