A year after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of campus, Sacramento State students reflect on their mental health journey and reveal their experiences with mental health. Graphic created in Canva. (Mercy Sosa)
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of campus, Sacramento State students reflect on their mental health journey and reveal their experiences with mental health. Graphic created in Canva.

Mercy Sosa

Isolation and grief: Sac State students cope with declining mental health during pandemic

Mental health services available around Sac State, Sacramento

April 5, 2021

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Sacramento State freshman Joe Singh rolls out of his warm bed just before 8 a.m. and turns on his MacBook Air to attend his modern business mathematics class via Zoom in his bedroom in his parent’s home in Tracy, California.

Singh, a business administration major, watches the lecture feeling bored and hopeless behind his computer screen. He opens the YouTube app on his phone and watches NBC Nightly News clips to distract himself.

After using his phone for a couple of hours, it dies and Singh is back to dreading assignments and feeling lethargic and weighted down by circumstances that the COVID-19 pandemic has put him in.

Fourteen hours after waking, alone in his room, Singh eats rice and microwaveable lentil beans as his first meal of the day at 10 p.m. This daily routine is wearing on him — waking up, attending meetings and working on assignments day in and day out as usual.

The plummeting mental health of college students during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rising utilization of mental health services. Despite this rise, many students like Singh have not sought out mental health services because he said none of the many ways they tell him to cope will help him stop feeling alone everyday.

“I went from enjoying my college experience to almost hating it.”

- Edward Kaleb Avalos-Muñoz

“I feel isolated, it makes me feel like every day is the same and I’m not going anywhere in life,” he said when asked how the pandemic is affecting him mentally. “I don’t have much optimism left for anything anymore.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had noticeable repercussions on the mental health of Sac State students. As a result of COVID-19, 89% of college students are experiencing stress and anxiety, according to an Active Minds’ student mental health survey. Active Minds also reported that one in four students say their depression has significantly increased.

Although there is an increase in anxiety and depression in the U.S., there is an unmet need for mental health treatment among youth and adults. 60% of youth with major depression did not receive any mental health treatment in 2017 and 2018, according to data collected by the nonprofit Mental Health America.

RELATED: Sac State students should expect to return to campus in fall 2021, Provost says
Even in states with the greatest access, over 38% are not receiving the mental health services they need according to the nonprofit. Among youth with severe depression, just over 27% received consistent treatment. Less than 24% of adults with a mental illness reported an unmet need for treatment in 2017 and 2018. This number has not declined since 2011.

The State Hornet spoke to students to hear about their experiences about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their mental health and compiled services available to students at Sac State and in Sacramento.

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Sac State students battle mental health issues with no assistance

Michelle Guilford, 20, said prior to the pandemic she had struggled with anxiety and depression which led her to sign up for an appointment to see a therapist on campus.

Before she had the chance to go to the Student Health and Counseling Services at The WELL, COVID-19 struck the Sac State community, she said.

“I never actually got to see the therapist,” said Guilford, a communication studies major with a minor in deaf studies.

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After March 2020, her anxiety and depression began to cause her more emotional and financial stress.

“As somebody who struggles with anxiety, I have noticed that I’m always on edge,” Guilford said.

“Distance learning has been really hard because of the fact that I do so well in environments where I get to collaborate with others,” Guilford said. “Not getting to know my professors or see the students doesn’t make it [school] feel real.”

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Michelle Guilford, a communication studies major with a minor in deaf studies, writes in her personal journal in her apartment bed on Feb. 26, 2021. Guilford said she writes in her journal every other day to reflect and get things off her chest.

Michelle Guilford, a communication studies major with a minor in deaf studies, writes in her personal journal in her apartment bed on Feb. 26, 2021. Guilford said she writes in her journal every other day to reflect and get things off her chest.

Although the pandemic has been hard on her mental health, Guilford said because of the pandemic she has also learned how to set more time aside for herself by meditating for 10 minutes everyday and journaling every other day as a way to relax her brain and get things off her chest.

Sakura King, 18, interior architecture major said her mental health has declined due to the pandemic and distance learning.

“Distance learning has its ups and downs,” said King in an Instagram direct message.

King said she gets more sleep during distance learning, but on the other hand she is more stressed because she worries she will misunderstand something and not receive much help from peers and professors.

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Sakura King listens to Chloe x Halle’s song “Don’t Make It Harder on Me” in her bedroom on her iPad on Feb. 24, 2021. King said she enjoys listening to her favorite music as a way to cope with everyday stressors.

Sakura King listens to Chloe x Halle’s song “Don’t Make It Harder on Me” in her bedroom on her iPad on Feb. 24, 2021. King said she enjoys listening to her favorite music as a way to cope with everyday stressors.

King said she started to notice how her social skills have gone down and does not feel like talking sometimes. To cope with stress, King said she loves listening to music, taking naps and reaching out to friends when she is in the mood to talk.

King has never used SHCS or any other mental health services because she does not think she would be able to open up in that setting, she said. However, she said other students should find out what works best for them and if they should use mental health services or not.

“If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know where to start on how to help yourself or to get help,” King said about how students should take care of themselves.

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When it came to distance learning, Jesús Rivas said he could not retain the information he learned from Zoom, thus making it harder to have a positive outlook on school when he pays money to only roll out of bed and log into class.
“In the beginning [of the pandemic] it was incredibly difficult to do the simplest tasks,” Rivas, a film and video production major, said.

Rivas, 19, said he has been aware of his mental health issues since his sophomore year of high school and has been going to therapy ever since.

RELATED: STATE HORNET PODCAST: Students open up about mental health during the pandemic

“Our emotions and our brain is just as much of a mental muscle as our legs or arms,” Rivas said. “Therefore working out your brain and emotions with therapy is just as important as going to the gym.”

Going to the gym, listening to music, taking pictures and creating art has been a way for him to reduce stress, Rivas said.

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Jesús Rivas looks at a picture he took on his Canon camera in his apartment bedroom on Feb. 25, 2021. Rivas, in his spare time, said he likes to capture moments on his camera as a way to let his creativity out during isolation.

Jesús Rivas looks at a picture he took on his Canon camera in his apartment bedroom on Feb. 25, 2021. Rivas, in his spare time, said he likes to capture moments on his camera as a way to let his creativity out during isolation.

Edward Kaleb Avalos-Muñoz, kinesiology major, said the pandemic has affected him in ways that he never expected it too.

“I went from enjoying my college experience to almost hating it,” Avalos-Muñoz said, adding that he misses being on campus.

“Distance learning has for sure affected the way I learn day in day out because I don’t feel that same teacher and student relationship connection that you would get inside a classroom,” Avalos-Muñoz said.

Avalos-Muñoz said he felt that it would be weird to open up to a stranger about his problems but is thankful to have his family’s support.

“I never really looked into the services that Sac State have to offer for mental health,” Avalos-Muñoz said.

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Avalos-Muñoz said he handles his stress by listening to music, playing video games with friends and spending time with loved ones.

Unlike other students, Michelle Yee, double majoring in mathematics and art with an emphasis on teaching preparation, said she appreciated the time to herself during the beginning of the pandemic compared to some other students.

“I feel like I am part of the small minority who is doing pretty alright despite the literal worldwide change of my life,” Yee said in an Instagram direct message, adding that when March 2020 happened it finally gave her some space to herself to finally breathe.

RELATED: Sac State’s immunocompromised community reflects on a year of COVID-19

Yee, 21, said she initially thought the pandemic would be over in a month but soon realized that it would impact the world and history. Yee has noticed her motivation to do productive things have reduced by submitting assignments late, skipping assignments altogether and tuning out of the Zoom lectures but cannot determine whether it is due to distance learning or another factor, she said.

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Michelle Yee sits next to her artwork in her living room on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. During isolation, Yee said she prefers to spend her time painting as a way to cope with the sorrow of missing out on creating memories with friends.

Michelle Yee sits next to her artwork in her living room on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. During isolation, Yee said she prefers to spend her time painting as a way to cope with the sorrow of missing out on creating memories with friends.

“I am sharing in the sorrow that everyone collectively feels in losing things because of this pandemic,” Yee said.

To cope with the sorrow of missing opportunities, missing out on fun memories and not being able to walk at graduation, Yee said she video calls her friends, has game nights and is able to create more art which she loves to do.

“I would advise students to cope with their mental health by seeking out help,” Yee said. “We are all struggling and dealing with the pandemic, nobody is alone.”

RELATED: Sac State students pledge to end stigma during Mental Health Awareness Week

Yee used the SHCS towards the end of the fall 2020 semester and said the counseling services were very professional and welcoming in setting up an appointment and connecting her to a counselor virtually. She said she was able to feel seen, heard and walk through her own emotions.

Some of the coping mechanisms that Sac State students use correlate with Active Minds findings that students during the pandemic have: virtual interaction with friends, in-person interaction with friends, being around pets and having the support from their families.

“Remember not everything is permanent and there is a reason for why we are here in this situation right now,” Guilford said. “We are still getting education together and we will have a story unlike any other.”

Mental health services at Sac State

The inability of students to feel comfortable with opening up to counselors or seek help is noticed by SHCS, Ronald Lutz, director of counseling services said. To destigmatize mental health services, SHCS supports efforts at Sac State to normalize mental health as a health parity issue Lutz said.

“On campus we provide a considerable number of outreach presentations and activities where we discuss mental health issues and inform students and staff about the range of services we offer,” he said.

Lutz said SHCS does not personally reach out to students who may be struggling due to privacy laws and professional ethics, but they do consultation for faculty and staff who may have encountered a student they are concerned about.

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An empty view from above The WELL at Sacramento State Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.The WELL is still undergoing significant renovation and will be expanding the Counseling Center to increase its services, Ronald Lutz, director of counseling services said.

An empty view from above The WELL at Sacramento State Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. The WELL is still undergoing significant renovation and will be expanding the Counseling Center to increase its services, Ronald Lutz, director of counseling services said.

“Each of the mental health providers on our team are assigned as a liaison to a department or campus partner to be available for consultation as needed,” he said.

Despite the stigma surrounding mental health services, the rising number of students needing mental health services did not go unnoticed by SHCS.

“They [SHCS] are really vital,” Lutz said, adding that student mental health concerns were rising and increasing even before the pandemic hit.

“We have so many more students dealing with anxiety now and 14% of students on a typical college campus nationwide report suicidal thoughts,” Lutz said.

RELATED: CSU Board sponsors expanding student mental health services

The increase of mental health issues amongst students on campus was growing before the COVID-19 pandemic and became more challenging because students were having less social interactions, being socially isolated and cooped up in their room all day, Lutz said.

The SHCS at Sac State offer all of their services virtually due to COVID-19 except for Urgent Care which is offered both in-person and online, according to Lutz. These services include: counseling services, health services, Urgent Care and workshops for students. SHCS offers confidential individual or group counseling sessions according to their website.

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The Health and Wellness Promotion office is located on the first floor of The WELL on Sept. 13, 2017 where students could schedule counseling and attend wellness workshops pre COVID-19. The increase of mental health issues amongst students on campus was growing before the COVID-19 pandemic according  to Ronald Lutz.

The Health and Wellness Promotion office is located on the first floor of The WELL on Sept. 13, 2017 where students could schedule counseling and attend wellness workshops pre COVID-19. The increase of mental health issues amongst students on campus was growing before the COVID-19 pandemic according to Ronald Lutz.

“We have a staff of 14 therapists who see people individually for typically an hour appointment,” Lutz said, adding that the counselors can meet with five clients a day and result in about 8,000 visits per year.

After March 12, 2020 when the campus shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lutz said SHCS lost four staff members and have not replaced the open positions.

Lutz said COVID-19 has contributed significantly to the increasing number of students using their virtual services with the SHCS staff currently working at full capacity. Sac State students paid $129.50 for the SHCS fee as a part of their tuition for the spring 2021 semester according to the Fees and Refunds page on Sac State’s website.

From spring 2020 to spring 2021, there is a $3.50 increase for the student health and service fee. All the services at the SHCS are covered by the student health fee, Lutz said.

“I think we [SHCS] are doing well, obviously everyone is struggling with COVID-19, but I think we’ve really tried to meet them [Sac State students] with a lot of resources,” Lutz said about the mental health status of the Sac State community.

“Our students also had great concerns about family members who may be sick and many of them have lost their jobs because of COVID-19,” Lutz said.

Before the pandemic hit, Sac State was starting to do construction on The WELL to expand its services. The WELL is still undergoing significant renovation and will be expanding the Counseling Center to increase its services, Lutz said.

“The goal is to eventually have additional counselors and additional services in the new facility when it’s all finished,” he said.

When the pandemic is under control they [Sac State] will continue to grow SHCS, Lutz added.

Individual counseling is probably one of the number one services for Sac State students, Lutz said. The counselors at SHCS can discuss a variety of topics including: academic difficulties, addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, relationship issues, questioning sexuality and more.

RELATED: Sac State permanently closes vision center, optometry services eliminated

Group therapy sessions are provided for students who may benefit from mutual support and prefer not feeling alone during a session. Group counseling meetings are limited to a maximum of 12 people.

“Typically in a semester, we’ll run six or eight different types of groups for depression, grief or loss,” Lutz said.

One of the newer programs at SHCS, Peer counseling, took off right before COVID-19 started and had to go virtual, Lutz said.

“We have so many more students dealing with anxiety now and 14% of students on a typical college campus nationwide report suicidal thoughts.”

- Ronald Lutz

“We [SHCS] put them[student peer counselors] through a fairly extensive training program to bring them up to speed about how to work with students,” he said.

To get the most out of counseling, the SHCS website recommends students define their goals, be an active participant, follow counselor’s recommendations, ask questions and to be patient with themselves. The virtual learning and health resources page provides Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and sexual health resources as well.

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From February to May, SHCS will offer a variety of virtual workshops for students such as Healthy Mind Talks and Working Out Your Stress meetings, according to their patient portal appointment page.

The SHCS patient portal also states that if students have a medical or psychiatric emergency to call 911 and to not access emergency care through its website. Students can make an appointment with SHCS on their website.

“Urgent Care is available without an appointment, you can just call and drop in and see her [urgent care counselor] and she will handle the urgent care matter for students experiencing a concern that cannot wait for an appointment,” Lutz said.

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The University Union at Sacramento State Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2021. During regular in-person instruction, students may find the CARES office on the first floor of the University Union in room 1260.

The University Union at Sacramento State Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2021. During regular in-person instruction, students may find the CARES office on the first floor of the University Union in room 1260.

In addition to those services, SHCS may refer students to another office on campus such as the Crisis Assistance and Resource Education Support (CARES). Sac State’s CARES office provides support to those who are in a crisis or experience unique challenges to their education, according to the CARES website page. CARES offers support by providing resources for transportation barriers, mental health, physical health and a variety of other topics.

The CARES office is currently operating virtually. The CARES office provides instructions on how to make an appointment on their website.

CARES deals with practical matters that do not fall in the counseling area such as not having housing, losing a job or not knowing how to pay for tuition, Lutz said.

He added that CARES can help students with their academics and guide students on how to approach a professor about a pressing matter such as needing to withdraw from a course.

Where to find help in Sacramento

In the infographic below, The State Hornet highlights several mental health services that could be found in Sacramento county via SacMap.

Mental Health Infographic by Chrissy Martinez
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Page design by Mercy Sosa.

Photo of Chrissy Martinez
Chrissy Martinez, staff writer
Chrissy Martinez joined The State Hornet as a COVID-19 and higher education beat writer in spring 2021. A Tracy native, Chrissy advocates for the youth in Tracy and informs Tracy residents about local news. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in broadcasting and run for local office to represent the Tracy community.

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