Affliction in Isolation: A Look at the State of Student Mental Health at UNR During the COVID-19 Pandemic

To view a fully-accessible PDF showing the results of our survey, please click here: [link]

Four walls. Separation from family and friends. Distance from the offices and rooms we habitually occupied. An online arena of icons and faceless names. What seemed impossible—a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic in the 21st century—became a reality in 2020 as COVID-19 disrupted the lives of millions of people around the globe, particularly the college students of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Shortly after Governor Sisolak’s first declaration of a state of emergency in March of 2020, Kamiron Pate, a current first-year speech pathology major at the University of Nevada, Reno, woke up physically and mentally disoriented. While COVID-19 tests weren’t distributed and easily accessible to the public at the time, Pate recalled having nearly every major symptom, especially a loss of taste and smell. The following months after Pate’s recovery were characterized by a distortion of those same senses. 

“I don't know what it was—if it was the fact of me knowing that I was isolating or if I was actually just in that much pain—but I would wake up and be so upset, and my body would ache,” said Pate. “At some point—it was by the third or fourth day—I’d just lay down. I kind of just gave up, and I was just there. I was like, ‘Hey, what happens happens.’ I really gave up a lot of things.”

Following Pate’s symptoms, his family followed all guidelines to create a barrier between him and them, but he was still concerned about exposure, especially with COVID-19’s incubation period.

“I was afraid for my family because I'd been around them so much, and I know they're susceptible to certain things. They're higher risk than I am, so at first, I felt really bad. Like terrible,” said Pate. “I was like, ‘Anything could happen to them, and then it's going to be my fault.’ Like, I gave it to y'all.

Pate isolated for about two weeks. Stuck in his childhood bedroom, Pate slowly recovered physically, but his mental well-being was degraded. He described it as “the most miserable experience” he has ever had—“or at least a close second.” The isolation forced Pate to reconsider what was important to him.

“Every time I felt a little bit sicker, I’d always be like, ‘I could be the next statistic. I really don’t know,’” said Pate. “It made me so worrisome, but also made me so appreciative of my life and the stuff that I want to do.”

Pate elaborated on the impact on his psyche during isolation: “You know how like you’re watching the movies, or you hear from like documentaries or quotes from prison inmates… like you see someone maybe get locked up in a horror movie? And they're stuck in a room for days on end, and they just kind of go crazy? I didn't think it would actually be like that, but when you're unable to talk to people, when you're unable to touch people, or see people or see what they're doing, it drives you crazy.”

The consequences of this pandemic don’t pertain only to those who tested positive—they extend to nearly everyone at UNR. Maria Victoria Diaz, a third-year student at UNR majoring in psychology and criminal justice, is one of many who dealt with the massive shift to remote instruction during the Spring 2020 semester. Diaz was diagnosed with clinical depression and general anxiety long before the pandemic happened, but she found that her mental health worsened when the pandemic first hit.

“Since the pandemic started, I started to think of how I was dealing with my mental health, and I realized that I was really not dealing with it,” said Diaz.

Due to the rapid changes in her college experience, Diaz turned to alcohol in order to cope. This led to her falling behind in the fall 2020 semester.

Diaz was one of many students who increasingly found solace in recreational substances, like alcohol, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Insight Magazine conducted a survey to investigate the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of students, which found that 49.7% of students have personally increased their use of alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and other drugs. Of the same respondents, 77.2% said that they know at least one other person who has increased their use of recreational substances. 

The impacts on the mental health of students during the pandemic stretch beyond drug use: The percentage of students who said they’ve had education-related challenges—ideas of (or actually)  taking a gap semester/year or dropping out as well as making major changes to their coursework and academic plan—is at 82.1%. The top motivators were an inability to see friends, family or significant others (88.3%); loss of regular access to public spaces (87.6%); the struggle to maintain grades in coursework (86.9%). 

Diaz’s experiences with the latter was a major part of her pandemic experience, which led to a temporary loss of financial aid. Although initially discouraged, she began to make efforts to resolve her academic issues in the spring 2021 semester. She noted that financial aid regulations remained the same as they were before the pandemic, despite the many challenges students faced. 

“At first, I felt really angry. I was like, ‘Why is the school doing this to me?’ It’s all in a pandemic. I was trying my best,” said Diaz. “Then I had this sort of epiphany moment: ‘The school has its laws, its rules. You're the one that fell behind because you were not focusing on the right things. You were just kind of desperate and passionate about a feeling, so you let yourself slip.’”

While many students struggled and continue to struggle with their mental health and school work, UNR student leaders and administration sought to ease the pains that come with these changes. Advocating on behalf of students, second-year student Parker Samuelson is the Director of Campus Wellness for the Associated Students of the University of Nevada. Her position works with the Office of Equal Opportunity & Title IX, the Fitness Center and the Counseling Center. During the 2020-2021 academic year, Director Samuelson prioritized a unified response to both the COVID-19 crisis and the mental health challenges that come with it. 

Director Samuelson has had bi-weekly meetings with Dr. Jacqueline Pistorello and Carla Franich from the UNR’s Counseling Center, and she holds a place on major statewide task forces, formed by the NSHE Chancellor. She also helped run regular outreach through official ASUN social media channels, especially through a weekly “Wellness Wednesday” campaign, which she led. 

“I think it's just about letting students know we're there. We're there to support them. We’re there to be their voice. We serve the students, not the administration, in that way. But we’re also working with the administration. We're all in this together,” said Samuelson.

On the other hand, Director Samuelson, speaking on behalf of herself, noted that there was a felt disconnect between students and the administrations that they turned to. Although NSHE and the offices of both the UNR and UNLV administrations continue to send emails of support and guidance to students, she also felt that inconsistent messaging has muddled their responses. In other words, she felt that more could be said by administrators about student concerns.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety and isolation felt from not being included and not being seen as equals. Having any messaging from higher ups would be better than having no messaging,” said Samuelson. “I think students understand that there’s not a definitive answer to COVID. But they’d appreciate being updated as if we were equals.”

The inconsistent outreach has been a major issue, exacerbated by the universal move to an online mode of living. Classrooms have been replaced by Zoom rooms, leading to “Zoom fatigue” and a student body discouraged from engaging with online content. Consequently, many students missed important (although scarce) information about the resources offered by the university. 

Since the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year (excluding emails from college-specific mailing lists and Residential Life, Housing, and Food Services), Counseling Services and other resources of support were mentioned in 12 emails sent to students across 33 weeks of classes as of writing. However, only four out of those emails made a specific reference to campus resources in the subject line. These emails were sent at the start and end of the fall 2020 semester, as well as the start of the spring 2021 semester. In the other emails, the resources were mentioned within or at the end of the body of the email. 

“If anything, they sent one email about resources, and that's it,” said Diaz regarding the low level of communication. “I know for a fact that when I'm going through an episode, it’s kind of like ‘I don’t care…’ I feel like the university should be proactive about it and remind students. Say, ‘Hey, there's these resources. Hey, there's this for you, or a virtual meeting…’ I did not see any kind of action from the university at all.”

A similar sentiment is shared with Pate, who is one of many who stand to benefit the most from the services offered to students. Instead, these services have a low profile and appear at first glance to be inaccessible. According to Insight Magazine’s survey, 49.3% of students have not used resources offered by the university, including those specific to COVID-19-related circumstances.

“For me and a few of my friends, being on your phone all the time is terrible now. There's always something going on, and it's always negative. Checking emails, checking classes and seeing your grade go down is not something you want to do,” said Pate. “Those outlets where they usually reach you… we aren’t going to check as frequently. I definitely feel if it's major, and you know it's major, [administration should] bombard us.”

According to Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, David Shintani, the administration has made and continues to make on-campus resources visible to students. Under his leadership, Shintani had tried to emphasize the importance of the resources during freshman orientation, ensure the presence of on-campus resources in syllabi, and provide information through WebCampus. He also says that they are investigating text messages as an alternative means of communications to emails.

“We don’t have unlimited capacity to address everybody’s mental health issues,” said Shintani. “In a normal year, we could probably handle it, but this is a crisis year so it's difficult for us to achieve these things…But we also find that to a certain extent some students don’t seek the resources…I know it's a hard thing to ask for help, but if students need help, we want to know.”

Shintani added, “Can we do more? Yes. Should we do more? Yes. Can we do more? Probably. Do we need more resources? Yes…I think we can always do more. But again, it's the students that need to also seek the help.”

In agreement with this idea is Diaz. Self-described as “self-reliant,” Diaz used to refuse the idea of seeking help and using the available resources on campus. However, she shed this mindset during the pandemic.

“I thought, ‘I know people that have a mental illness, and they don't go to therapy, so why would I? They're doing great. I can do great.’ It was definitely not the right mindset, and it's definitely hard to get to a point where you can say, ‘You know what, I actually do need the help. I actually do need to reach out,’” said Diaz. “Obviously not everybody has a mental illness, but we've all been affected by the pandemic in one way or another. There are still resources for them. I think that the best way to reach students is by students.”

The biggest student-supporting entity that felt the effects of the past crisis year and struggled to maintain outreach endeavors was the Counseling Center. Dr. Jacqueline Pistorello, Director of Counseling Services, said that the shift to telemedicine platforms was cushioned by pre-existing research into these options. According to Dr. Pistorello, this meant temporarily turning to phone sessions before shifting to HIPAA-compliant Zoom meetings. The experience gained through the pandemic experience will inform telemedicine options in the future.

“We never stopped serving the students,” said Dr. Pistorello.

Dr. Pistorello said that she attributes the success of the Counseling Center’s telemedicine options to collaboration from within the university. From working directly with the School of Medicine to connecting with the mental health taskforce across NSHE, she says the university administration played a large part in facilitating the operations of the Counseling Center.

“I've been at UNR for a while. As Director, only two years, but I've been here for 23 years. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this, where all the institutions are coming together and trying to figure out what to do about mental health,” said Dr. Pistorello. “It speaks to the systemic support in wanting to do something about mental health.”

As part of a pandemic-focused action plan, the Counseling Center ramped up efforts to reach out to students through social media. New programs and events were introduced, including Wolf Pack Instagram Live sessions, a “PandEPIC Life” support group, and a “PACK the Dinner Table” event. Dr. Pistorello says these programs are vital to a students that may not have considered Counseling Services in the past.

However, when discussing engagement, Dr. Pistorello freely admits that the Counseling Center has worked with less students throughout the 2020 calendar year compared to the previous year. According to numbers sent by Dr. Pistorello on behalf of the Counseling Center, the Counseling Center found a 27% drop in students seen and a 17% drop in total appointments. However, the numbers also note that students on average attended nearly 1 more appointment compared to the previous year.

“Can we do better? Yeah, but I think that’s the case for all,” said Dr. Pistorello. “I feel like as a parent, I can do better, like in every area of my life. I've decided that this is the ‘good enough’ period.”

And to students struggling academically, she said, “I recommend to some students who are hard on themselves to give yourself a little bit of a break. Maybe this is the semester, where you do get some of the [S/U grades] you know, instead of the [letter] grade if you can.”

However, Diaz doesn’t believe that mental health resources on campus were enough to aid students suffering during the pandemic. The issues students faced stretched beyond basic mental health services, and were a result of the structure of university life and instruction as a whole. She found that drastic changes, due to the pandemic, were met with a lack of change in university operations.

For example, COVID-19 challenged not only students’ ability to learn, but also their ability of basic survival. The pandemic forced several stores to temporarily close, which led to many lost jobs. Diaz said that having a job was to be “blessed,” and that many students need to stay working, to sustain themselves. She said that there was little flexibility offered by professors, especially in terms of attendance and scheduling.

“I feel like there's no consideration of the fact that we're adults. We have adult stuff to do, besides school. They're hard on students, because obviously you need to be in class and you want to engage in class, but people have work,” said Diaz. “I totally get it…But you know there's just some things that have to be more flexible.”

Adding onto this sentiment, Pate views the university administration as cold, formal and professional. He said, “I can believe that they’re supportive, but do I see it? No…It doesn’t seem personal.”

Pate found a general lack of support and community from his peers and the university due to the separation, and found it difficult to find ways to make connections. Although he did have new roommates, he was alienated from them and does not experience a strong relationship with them.

“When you come back from outside, you really just want to be by yourself. You don’t want to be occupied with other people too much, because socializing is a lot now,” said Pate. “So it’s like here, I’m just alone.”

These experiences contributed to what appeared to be an educational environment that was hostile to the caring of mental health. Insight Magazine’s survey supports this: only 35.1% of students do not believe that the university is doing enough to support the mental health of students; 39.6% of students said that they did not know what the university has done to support the mental health of students. Only 4.5% of students definitely affirmed they believe the university is doing enough.

Another contention on the issue of systemic support is ASUN’s budget over the academic year. Insight Magazine obtained an updated version of the ASUN budget, which was current as of March 18, 2021. A review of the budget found $132,050 allocated for ASUN’s 25 senators (up from $74,100 in the previous school year) and $85,000 allocated for a Welcome Week Concert. Meanwhile, the budget of Pack Provisions, an on-campus food pantry located in ASUN’s Center for Student Engagement, was only allocated $58,669 including “outside contributions'' as labeled on the budget sheet, and ASUN’s “FY21 contribution” towards the Emergency Tuition Assistance Program was $78,000.

“We've all watched the news. We really had to during [the summer], and you can't sit there and say that you don't know what people were going through,” said Pate. “I know a lot of people that go to sleep hungry. A lot of people aren't able to get groceries, can't figure it out or are too depressed to eat. You just have this money sitting around, and they did a concert.”

Although the Emergency Tuition Assistance Program and Pack Provisions are listed as external accounts, students, including Pate, expressed disappointment in what appears to be poor allocation approved by senators.

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In a press release, dated March 17, 2021, NSHE chancellor, Melody Rose reflected on one year since the system transitioned to remote, COVID-19 operations.

“Today is a solemn time as we remember those we’ve lost and the many challenges we have faced,” she wrote, “but it is also a time for hope.”

In the same press release, Chancellor Rose announced that the COVID-19 taskforce recommended a transition back to mostly in-person instruction for the fall 2021 semester.

Moving forward, Vice Provost Shintani believes that his experience in crisis handling will be essential for the future. Although he admitted that each crisis is different, Shintani noted that communication was essential to keeping people connected. From pulling students abroad back to the United States to informing parents about the safety of their children, Shintani found that every emergency demanded quick thinking and careful consideration.

“I'm really impressed by the students,” said Shintani about the UNR community. “How adaptable they have been, how they've been able to be successful in a really difficult year. I really respect that they've had to deal with these isolation. They are having mental health issues, but they're still persevering through it.”

A challenge is presented to the students of Nevada, who have changed immensely during the course of the pandemic but are offered the nostalgic imagery of a life before COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, Pate wanted to become a surgeon. However, by the time he started his first college classes, he had changed his major. By the end of his first semester of college, he again had second thoughts about his career path and is now considering music as a way forward.

“This past year, building myself back up to who I am now is crazy. And you can say that’s the positive aspect of it too,” said Pate. “I'm a completely different person than I was last year. That happens, of course, over the span of a year, but when the whole scenario went down — all of that — it was just like I had a different outlook on life, different outlook on what I wanted to do.”

He also says he’s become much more of an introvert. Diaz shares this change, as her relationships with her friends aren't as close or strong as before. She still craves that deeper social interaction from peers, but she finds solace in her family more than ever before.

“You know, obviously, you still have access to people. You can talk to people through your phone. But it’s that feeling of just, ‘This is it. This is my room. I’m here all day. I don’t have certain people here with me,’” said Diaz. “Now, the only way I can relax from school is to just go to the living room, where I don’t have class.”

“I spend more time with my brother. Now we watch more movies. I talk more with my mom. This brought us together, just because we've all been going through the same thing, so we understand where we're all coming from.”

The most important thing right now is staying sane, according to Pate. Mental health persists as an issue in the state of Nevada, with the state ranking 51st out of all states plus Washington, D.C.. In a moment of uncertainty, when the end of the pandemic seems like it is near, Pate learned to manage the intensity and the emotional toll of everything on his psyche.

“Learn to feel your emotions. Don’t ignore it,” said Pate. “If you're feeling lonely, feel that. If you're feeling sad, feel that. If you're angry, feel all of that. Allow yourself to fill it for the day. And the next day, you work to get yourself out of that situation.

“It's okay to feel your emotions. I feel everyone is kind of scared now, at this point, to express themselves because we're all going through it. But emotions are real. Everyone has them.”

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Pack Provisions is located in the ASUN Center for Student Engagement in the Joe Crowley Student Union’s third floor. They are open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM. If you are in the Reno-Sparks area, Campus Escort may deliver to you.

The Counseling Center is located in the William N. Pennington Student Achievement Center in Room 420. Their Virtual Front Desk is available Monday through Thursday from 9 AM to 6 PM, and Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM. During regular hours, the Counseling Center may be called at (775) 784-4648. An after-hours crisis hotline may be called at (775) 297-8315.