Content warning: This article contains references to suicide and mental illness.
On a morning in late March 2020, UNC junior Caroline Le sat on her bed and called the friends and family of her childhood best friend for over an hour, unsure of his whereabouts.
Finally, a mutual friend of the two of them from a summer spent in Washington, D.C. called her back.
“Are you with your loved ones?” her friend asked. “Are you sitting down?”
At the time, Le had just returned from a spring break trip to Spain. She was home with her family and the University had already begun remote instruction due to COVID-19.
And that’s when she heard the news — her best friend had died by suicide the night before.
Le fell to her knees, screaming and crying, in shock from the words she’d just heard.
“That moment I had no control of myself and could not put into words — and I still really don’t think that I do a good job of it — what it’s like to find out that your childhood best friend is gone,” she said.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic left Le to navigate that moment alone, as the people who also loved her best friend were back home. The friends who were experiencing the grief with her, who she wanted nothing more than to hug in that moment, were out of reach.
The isolation of the pandemic brought with it unique challenges for students experiencing loss and grief or struggling with their mental health. Nearly half of U.S. adults felt that coronavirus was harming their mental health, according to survey results from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in April.
As vaccination efforts increase and a semblance of normal seems on the horizon, the UNC community reflects on the toll that living through a year of a pandemic has taken on mental health.
Addressing mental health concerns
Researchers from the Carolina Population Center and the UNC School of Medicine, led by associate economics professor Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, compared first-year college students' reported symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the pandemic began.
"Really shocking was the increases in anxiety and depression that we saw even just the four months into the pandemic," Fruehwirth said.
The prevalence of moderate to severe depression increased from 21.5 percent before the pandemic began to 31.7 percent within four months after the pandemic began. Fruehwirth said the increases in depression and anxiety were particularly startling for Black students and sexual and gender minority students.
Fruehwirth said the factors that drove increases in depression and anxiety the most were social isolation and difficulties with distanced learning.
Le and others, including UNC graduate Kyra DeKoning, used periods of isolation to reconnect with friends they haven't spoken to in years.
DeKoning, who in March 2020 was in the final semester of getting her master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling, said she’s dealt with depression and anxiety her whole life, and the sudden cancellations and isolation due to COVID-19 triggered increased depression.
When she moved back home during quarantine to be with her parents, DeKoning had nightly Zoom calls with some high school friends.
“We got a lot closer, which was really helpful, honestly, having that support system because we were all in the same boat,” she said. “We were all looking for people to hang out with virtually.”
As the UNC community found ways to stay connected online, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services began offering virtual therapy appointments and other services to help students struggling with their mental health over the past year of COVID-19.
CAPS served 3,531 students between March 1, 2020 and March 5, 2021, according to data from UNC Media Relations. In total, CAPS provided 7,186 virtual appointments over the past year.
In addition to individual sessions, CAPS offered virtual group therapy sessions and helped coordinate referrals for students who needed to find providers in their local area.
“It’s been important to remind people to reach out for help,” O’Barr said. “I think sometimes people begin to feel so bad or so hopeless that they actually forget that there might be somebody who can make them feel better.”
Student mental health advocacy
As they've navigated the past year of the pandemic, UNC students have advocated for University-wide mental health provisions.
Senior environmental science major Katie Horn created a petition last fall calling for one day off to give students a mental health break.
Though the petition received over 3,000 signatures and the Office of the Chancellor asked faculty to pause instruction on Oct. 9, 2020, in Observance of World Mental Health Day, Horn said some criticized her advocacy for a mental health day.
“I still get flack for making that petition, but I also know that it helped more people than it hurt,” she said.
Now this spring, instead of a traditional week-long spring break, UNC is holding five wellness days throughout the semester. These days are intended as full breaks from coursework.
As the University plans for increased in-person campus operations in the fall, Le looks forward to spending time with her friends in ways that she couldn’t last March.
“The thought of being able to hug my friends and share a meal with my friends is beyond exciting,” Le said.
When it’s safer to travel, she hopes to visit Washington, D.C. and go back to the places where she made memories with her best friend — to finally find the healing she wasn’t able to at the start of the pandemic.
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