Today’s college students have more to worry about than how to log into Zoom. There’s the unexpected isolation from staying at home, anxiety over COVID-19 and the simmering unrest in the nation.
To find out how these outside influences are affecting Cal State Long Beach students, kinesiology professor Dr. Leilani Madrigal is conducting an anonymous online survey that asks students how they are dealing with stress.
“Honestly, I have not coped with them (stressors) at all I kind of just push everything down,” wrote one student in the survey.
In the study, “The Mental Health Crisis of Pandemic Proportions: How College Students are Living With COVID-19,” Madrigal is looking to better understand how the pandemic has shaped the psychological well-being, coping mechanisms and overall feelings of the students. She has received more than 400 responses so far.
She said the impact of quarantine, economic outlook and racial issues has created an overwhelming amount of psychological distress on students. Throw in dozens of wildfires burning in the state and some students are having trouble seeing their future clearly.
“I have been very stressed about school like I might not be cut out for college.”
Madrigal said she the information about mental health and racial inequality can help guide future programs and workshops at The Beach and other universities. She said if they can better understand the experiences of students during the pandemic, they can more directly assist their needs.
She hopes to have preliminary data this fall and will use it to develop on-campus programs, workshops and a partnership with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and its Beach Buddy program that would aid struggling students. Madrigal also aims to involve other Cal State University campuses with another survey next spring.
“I know there already are programs here that address isolation and self-care, but if we could get a data-driven workshop that is hitting this again would help,” she said, “because what we are seeing right now is a rollercoaster of continuous stressors going on. Some days are good, and some days are really bad for students.”
“Worrying about my own health due to lack of exercise, feeling the pressure of needing to be politically active in these times, and nearby wildfires have added on to my stress levels.”
Madrigal, a former collegiate softball player, typically studies the mental toughness of athletes and positive psychology but considering the number of possible stressful situations students might be facing, she decided to survey the entire campus community.
“Given that I’m in a role with a larger base of students on campus, I thought it was time to get a student perspective, not just a student-athlete perspective on what we can do to better help our students,” she said.
“If we could teach people strategies needed to face challenges and find coping strategies to help them combat their stressors, they are going to feel better in their overall psychological well-being.”
“Doing research and becoming more educated about stressors helps me to better understand what is taking place.”
Madrigal said she later added the issue of race because it would be impossible to assess student mental health with during the pandemic without recognizing the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement. The survey asks for a student’s ethnic background, which Madrigal said, helps identify how they feel about race issues.
“At first, a lot of people were saying it doesn’t affect me, or ‘I’m white and I haven’t seen this,’ ” Madrigal said. “Others said this is something they experience on a day-to-day basis and I really wish our community would do more or our campus would do more.
“Then there are others who say, ‘I think our campus is doing a really great job’ and for them to keep doing what they are doing. Again, some want to see more work where this is being done and that they are mindful of these things.”
“I have supported the movement by signing petitions. I wanted to participate in the protests but was being cautionary for my family who are high-risk for COVID-19.”
Madrigal said the switch to distance learning was the beginning of these unusually stressful times for many of the students. Most had never heard of Zoom or other online tools that they suddenly had to master and that added to their feelings of isolation and frustration.
“I've been having trouble focusing at home and retaining material. I would study at the library with friends to help keep me focused.”
“Some people were afraid because of how their learning would be impacted,” Madrigal said. “They were used to being in face-to-face classes and online learning was an added stress because they were still unsure of how to use it at that time.
“I’m hoping that by the end of the academic year, when we do this survey again, that those stressors aren’t there anymore, or they are alleviated, so, we don’t see the academic stress prolonged.”