By Harry Minium

The number of college students in need of mental health counseling was on upswing long before COVID-19, the social unrest associated with police killings of African Americans and a bitterly partisan presidential election rocked the nation in 2020 and into 2021, with protestors storming the U.S. Capitol.

Pandemic shutdowns that caused millions to lose jobs also left many college students socially isolated, unable to go to university events in person and fearful of being infected by the coronavirus.

More than 40% of adults suffer from depression, anxiety and other issues, and, most alarmingly, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 26% of adults age 18 to 24 have had suicidal thoughts.

If you're an Old Dominion University student who's struggling with all that's going on, ODU has counselors to help you.

The ODU Counseling Center offers free, short-term counseling for students and will help find a private counselor if you need longer-term treatment.

"We want students to know they aren't alone, that we are here to help if they need help," said Liam Costello, a counselor and case manager for the counseling center.

The biggest step students need to take is admit they need help and ask for it.

"In many ways, we are living in unprecedented times. So many students we meet with are feeling more anxious, more depressed," he said. "Whatever you're going through or whatever is happening in your life right now, we are here to help."

The first step is to make a phone call (757- 683-4401). Press Option 1 to schedule an appointment. If you are in a crisis and need immediate help, press Option 2 to talk directly to a counselor.

The Counseling Center's office is open during school days in the Webb Center, but nearly all counseling sessions are being conducted via Zoom, so a phone call is the best way to get help.

Ragan Killen Cook, a counselor and the center's outreach coordinator, said students can receive up to 10 counseling sessions without cost. Beyond that, counselors will work with you to find long-term help.

Cook said ODU offers only short-term help because "there is such a high number of students whose needs we're trying to meet with nine full-time clinicians."

ODU hired a psychiatrist, Dr. Kathreen Tadrous, in 2019 to help students who may need additional help, including medication. She can treat students for up to six months, but on occasion she works longer with some.

ODU also offered nine group counseling sessions in the fall, with most meeting once per week, that any student could attend virtually by asking for a Zoom invitation. ODU expects to offer a similar number during the spring.

"We have a COVID-19 general drop-in support group that helps students deal with all the issues surrounding the pandemic," Cook said.

An LGBTQ group is offered, as are groups that support the empowerment of women, a Black Lives Matter group that deals with social injustice, a social anxiety group and a group specifically for women who have suffered trauma.

In the days following the election, the center offered a two-day group that allowed students to process their thoughts about the election results.

Although there seems to be no one answer as to why, students are arriving on college campuses with more mental health issues than a decade ago.

"It could be that college has become more accessible for more people than it used to be," Costello said. "It could be that because people are more willing to talk about mental health, they are more willing to seek services."

Regardless, he added: "The number of requests we receive continues to rise, and the severity of what we're seeing also continues to go up."

Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), once considered something suffered only by those who served in a war zone, has increased among students. The pandemic, Ragan said, has compounded problems.

"I've found a lot of students that I see express having more anxiety, and the fear of being judged," she said. "A lot of students are telling us that they are away from their social groups and in a time like this, it's harder to connect. And with so many people staying home, there are relationships conflicts.

"Just having to navigate sharing space can be super challenging."

ODU is among the nation's most diverse universities, and that includes not just racial diversity but also diversity of generations. The University has older students, and many of those nontraditional students have expressed exasperation in group settings to Costello about the nation's continuing racial strife.

"Hopelessness may be too strong a word, but a lot of them say, 'We've been fighting this since the 1960s and 1970s and it feels like all of this should be in our rear-view mirror,'" he said.

"Our students are being inundated from social media and other outlets. A lot of people are trying to find the balance between being plugged in and connected enough, but also, 'How do I find some space to just breath and laugh and experience something other than this trauma.'"

Cook has worked to increase the counseling center's messaging on both Facebook and Instagram.

The message? Reach out to students who need help and urge them to call the counseling center.

As Costello said, the first step may take you out of your comfort zone, but it could lead to a happier more well-balanced life.

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