Mental Health at Fordham: Where We Are and How To Move Forward
Students reflect on their mental health after a year of living in a pandemic
March 30, 2021
The closure of college campuses last March led to a mental health crisis that no one could prepare for. Students dealt with social and economic anxieties and isolation on top of coursework, and many were thrown into chaotic living conditions as their on-campus housing was closed down.
Devin Dhaliwal, Gabelli School of Business at Lincoln Center (GSBLC) ’23, had to move into a spare room in his mom’s already overcrowded house due to the hectic campus shutdown. “It was like staying in a guest room and I didn’t have a desk. I took all my classes and finals on my bed,” he said.
Experiences like these are not unique to Fordham; mental health among all college students took a drastic turn for the worse at the start of the pandemic and has continued to do so, but Fordham students who returned to the bustling chaos of New York City were met with unique challenges not faced on traditional campuses. Daily sights of inequality, lack of socialization in the unofficial capital of the world and the fast-paced eat-or-be-eaten culture of NYC make the Fordham community especially susceptible to mental distress.
“The whole time you’re in a converted triple, you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to be on my own; I can’t wait to have my own room!’ But when you actually are and there’s nobody else there, you really miss people.” Steven DeBellis, PCS ’21
According to Jeffrey Ng, director of Fordham’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), “Historically, anxiety, depression, academic distress and relational concerns have been the most common presenting problems in our office. We have no doubt the COVID pandemic has exacerbated them.” In 2019, 66% of students experienced “overwhelming anxiety” and 45% felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” according to a survey by the American College Health Association. In 2020, 75% of college students reported experiencing one or more clinical indicators of depression, and 87% say their education is a “significant source of stress.”
Lack of sleep and exercise has also been a factor. Lindsay Hoytt, a Fordham psychology professor and a research psychologist, cited these as contributions to mental distress on college campuses. She co-authored a 2019 study that quantified the increase in stress among college students.
These concerns have prompted more frequent student outreach by both CPS and student groups. Fordham’s Active Minds is part of a nationwide campaign that provides mental health resources with the goal of ending the stigma around mental health. While it hasn’t been able to run any programming at Fordham this is, its parent organization continues to provide resources. Another group is Lean On Me, a student-run text-support line for confidential, non-crisis support that has operated throughout the pandemic.
On March 15, CPS hosted a Zoom webinar to provide strategies for easing mental distress. While CPS offers free services to students on- and off-campus, university funding ultimately limits the scope of its services, according to Ng. “Right now we don’t have the capacity to see all students for as long as they would like,” he said. “If we did that we wouldn’t be able to absorb the demand.”
This incapacity results in a limit of about 10 therapy sessions per student each year, after which a student is referred to an outside therapist. Steven DeBellis, Fordham School of Professional and Continuing Studies ’21, said he chose not to go back to therapy after his 10 sessions because “it’s hard to travel for counseling when you’re used to getting it on campus.” He said the session limit made each session have an artificial sense of urgency. “I felt like I have to get all my problems figured out in 10 weeks because that’s when this ends,” he said.
DeBellis also struggled with the emotional and physical drain of opening up to new therapists and was hesitant to do so again. “It’s tough because every time you start with a new counselor you have to do it all again,” he said. “I thought we were making really good progress and it was rough. It made me not want to go back for counseling.”
Ng hopes the soon-to-be-formed Student Advisory Council will begin to address these concerns. He says it will allow “students and student leaders to learn about us more deeply, and more importantly to receive feedback from students on how we can continue to enhance our services and how we can continue to support student mental health and well being.” The council will begin accepting nominations this spring.
DeBellis said that the isolation of living off-campus this fall contributed to his mental distress. “It’s funny because the whole time you’re in a converted triple, you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to be on my own; I can’t wait to have my own room!’ But when you actually are and there’s nobody else there, you really miss people.”
Although he’s struggled at Fordham, he is thankful that priests and Campus Ministry are always available and to support him spiritually. “A lot of them are very open to talking to you about anything. There’s no limit to how often you can go,” he said, remarking that the perception that religious resources on campus can’t supplement mental health resources is wrong.
“The biggest joy in my life is being able to share experiences with other people. Not being able to make new friends is a big weight on me. It definitely causes me a lot of stress.” Devin Dhaliwal, GSBLC ’23
Dhaliwal said living in an off-campus apartment and not being able to visit friends has been a huge strain. “The biggest joy in my life is being able to share experiences with other people. Not being able to make new friends is a big weight on me. It definitely causes me a lot of stress.” Dhaliwal said he has never sought care with CPS and thinks there could be more promotion of its services to off-campus students. “I do find myself pretty constantly struggling, trying to better myself. My mental health resources are close friends and family, which is good but it’s nothing professional.”
Just as for DeBellis, religion has guided Dhaliwal through the pandemic. Mindfulness and mediation techniques he learned in his Buddhism class have been indispensable to him during the pandemic. “I thought it’d just be a requirement but I ended up loving it … a lot of things are different forms of suffering. The idea behind happiness is accepting a lot of that.”
Jenna Goldblatt, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’23, is a resident freshman mentor in McKeon Hall and said the staff is guided through training by CPS, but it isn’t always enough for them to help residents with daily challenges.
She said the most difficult part of aiding residents with mental health issues is knowing when to step in. “We don’t get to know the issue until someone else does. It can be isolating for both of us. It can put me in a weird position and it puts them in a weird position,” Goldblatt said.
Ng said the culture around mental health is changing, and students are feeling less stigma or shame to seek mental health care. He attributes this primarily to social media and journalism that have actively sought to demystify mental health.
“When you get really invested in these issues it can contribute to that sense of hopelessness. It’s such an extreme platform. Social media pushes you to feel so intensely about one thing or another.” Jenna Goldblatt, FCLC ’23
While social media has been indispensable to mental health awareness, its effect is two-sided. Dhaliwal said that social media and its superficiality negatively impacted his mental health: “I am on social media all the time and it is bad. It’s like a muscle reflex for me to pick up my phone. Life’s a lot less glamorous than midtown and photoshoots.”
CPS recommended setting limits on screen time so students aren’t overwhelmed by the constant flood of news — especially for Black, Indigenous and students of color, as well as for LGBTQ+ students.
“When you get really invested in these issues it can contribute to that sense of hopelessness. It’s such an extreme platform. Social media pushes you to feel so intensely about one thing or another,” Goldblatt said.
Fordham’s announcement of full in-person instruction for the fall 2021 semester has impacted students’ outlook on the future. “I don’t want to be too optimistic or naive, but I’m thinking about traveling and seeing people and being with friends. I’m getting excited that spring is here and the world someday is not going to be like this,” Goldblatt said.
Although students are hopeful the pandemic may soon be over, the rate of mental distress among college students will remain at an all-time high and the movement to end the stigma and promote mental wellness on college campuses will continue.