Battling the Pandemic’s Emotional Toll

With eyes closed and head titled downward, participants in the mindfulness meditation workshop hung on the counselor’s every word.

“Bring attention to the top of the head and notice any sensations that you feel there,” Susan Byrne, a senior counselor at Stony Brook University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, said in a slow, soothing voice.

The students followed her instructions as she talked them through a breathing exercise, then moved on to a meditative practice called a body scan that focuses awareness on each part of the body to isolate and banish feelings of tension, pain or discomfort. “Now, gently become more aware of your surroundings, opening your eyes when you’re ready.” Her words were almost a whisper. 

Gradually, at their own pace, the attendees fluttered their eyes open as they peered at their laptop screens. The counselor engaged in a few minutes of reflective discussion with the students. And then, the Zoom meditation workshop ended. 

Byrne, who is trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy, offered these weekly meditation workshops during the spring 2021 semester. It was just one of many programs offered by departments within the Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services that help pandemic-weary students de-stress during these most stressful times.

Approximately 75 percent of college-aged Americans have reported facing mental health issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These can range from lack of focus and motivation to anxiety, depression and even suicide. About 25 percent of young adults report having thoughts of suicide, according to the same CDC report. Zoom Fatigue and COVID-burnout may not be official clinical diagnoses but they are common conditions that have crept into everyday conversation and that speak to the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion the pandemic has wrought.

The mental health professionals who run Stony Brook’s Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services – including CAPS and the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO) – couldn’t have predicted the length and depth of the pandemic, but they did anticipate some of its consequences. And so as classes moved online, the university’s psychological support services and wellness programs did as well. After almost a year and a half, virtually all such services and counseling sessions are virtual, although the return to in-person classes means the eventual return of more face-to-face appointments.

“Moving to virtual learning, our socializing becomes virtual and we might feel more isolated,” said Lara Hunter, a clinical social worker who is the assistant director of CAPS. “And feeling isolated is one of those things that can have a negative impact on our mental health.” 

Caroline Gallagher, a sophomore technological systems management major who lived on campus during the spring 2021 semester, understands what Hunter is saying. 

“I’m kind of confined to my room most of the day,” Gallagher said at the time, explaining that she reached out to CAPS in the beginning of her freshman year because she had problems managing her time and felt overwhelmed. “And then at night, it’s always like, well, I could go to sleep, but also I could do this work that I need to do so I feel like mentally I really don’t ever turn off in the way that maybe I could when classes were in person. And I think, too, that’s kind of affected the way that I interact with people.”

To mitigate feelings of isolation and anxiety, new and existing workshops and webinars introduce students to coping techniques. For example, an existing three-part webinar called “Anxiety Toolbox” teaches students how to recognize and deal with anxiety. Workshop supervisors help students develop plans to manage anxiety and form more effective, personalized strategies.

Since the pandemic began, two new workshops were created: BRIDGE, or Building Relationship and Dialogue Effectiveness, and Seeking Serenity, in which students learn strategies to manage overwhelming emotions and distressing situations. Program creators at CAPS noticed that students were struggling in their relationships as well as juggling multiple stressors, unhealthy living conditions or family environments. Counselors started a peer support group but participation fell short compared to wellness programs, such as Susan Byrne’s popular “Mindfulness Meditation” group.

The Stony Brook CAPS Logo
Image from the CAPS website

In March 2020, when students went home for virtual classes, CAPS had one week to shift to telehealth visits and virtual doctor and counseling appointments. This transition resulted in a sharp decline in total demand for the university’s counseling services and programming last year because many students were no longer on campus.

Julian Pessier, director of CAPS, explained: “The 25 percent decrease in the number of clients who have utilized us over the whole course of the whole year, was largely driven by that initial period where people didn’t know how to contact us and so we had to do a whole bunch of publicity to get the word out.” 

Despite this, there was only an approximately 10 percent decline in counseling appointments during the pandemic year, meaning people using these specific services were now staying longer, according to Pessier’s reports. Summer and winter sessions also became busier as students learned more about telehealth and realized they didn’t have to seek out counseling in their home communities. 

Accessing information about mental health care continues to be a challenge, especially among college students across the country. In a data report by the Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association, 60 percent of students surveyed on 14 college campuses, indicated that the pandemic has made it more difficult to access mental health care.

Online therapy has benefits in terms of easy accessibility for off-campus and international students. But the therapeutic process can be more effective with eye contact and non-verbal communication, which certainly get lost on Zoom.

“In terms of human connection it’s a little bit more challenging,” Hunter said. “In trauma treatment, one of the things that actually helps our brains heal from the trauma is eye contact and on Zoom it’s a little bit harder to make eye contact.”

When creating workshops and programs, there are a few key principles that program designers at CAPS keep in mind, one being relevance. Is this information relevant to what students are experiencing? They also work to make sure the content, language, and platform used is both appropriate and understandable. 

Evaluating the program’s effectiveness and accuracy is important as well. Is this program or group providing students with useful skills that they can apply to their own lives?  Is it addressing what it was intended to address?

“In trauma treatment, one of the things that actually helps our brains heal from the trauma is eye contact and on Zoom it’s a little bit harder to make eye contact.”

Lara Hunter, clinical social worker and assistant director of CAPS

“I think the seminars held by CHILL and other student-led organizations can be more effective than ones held by the university, simply because they teach skills that students can continue to use on their own,” said Aamna Atif, a senior psychology major who is vice president of the Humanology Project, an advocacy club that aims to reduce stigmas surrounding mental health through student-written articles and literature.

As its name implies, the Center for Prevention and Outreach, located in the Stony Brook Union, focuses on prevention and intervention services. It uses a public health approach model to gather student feedback and gauge the campus climate on a variety of topics such as substance abuse, sexual violence and mental health. The center also hosts health workshops and engages students in discussions – one of the most popular being the “Let’s Talk” program, which features one-on-one, week-day meetings with counselors.

Psychologist Danielle Merolla, the center’s assistant director, works to mitigate some of the stigmas surrounding mental health issues and the barriers facing those in need of professional help.

“People are not putting themselves in context of this time, and affording themselves grace,” Merolla said, adding that this only exacerbates stress and anxiety. “There’s an increase in a negative sense of self that’s happening. This is why the early prevention lens that we come from in CPO becomes so important, because I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to, that when I help put it in context of this time, it can alleviate some of that harsh aggressive criticism.”

Merolla also supervises several peer-educator groups like CHILL and Global Minds Alliance, both year-long internships. These peer educators inform and empower other students through social media posts and informational “Minute on the Minds” videos, presentations and programming. In a “Minute on the Minds” video from last November, CHILL peer educator Anthony Pantaleo advises students to refrain from relying on others for validation and instead reflect on things they love about themselves.

“We’re really trying to model healthy behaviors that can correlate with healthier outlooks for our mental well being,” said Dena Spanos, a graduate student who oversees two peer-educator groups. Getting enough sleep is one such behavior, she said. “We know that in order to really have normal, healthy cognitive function, we need to have seven to eight hours of sleep at night. But most college students don’t do that.”

CPO’s methods of wellness and de-stressing encourage healthy habits that students can practice on their own. But some students have found ways to relax through newly discovered hobbies. Resident assistant Olivia Kato is no exception.

“I take walks, eat with friends, and play my guitar. I also watch a lot of YouTube. Playing guitar, seeing people, and watching YouTube aren’t anything new. Wellness walks on the other hand, are something new,” said Kato, who, in her pre-pandemic life, used to walk about five miles a day. “Not only does walking help me take my mind off things, but it also helps my back decompress from slouching at my desk all day and gives my body some type of cardiovascular exercise.”

Last year, Dr. Sana Malik and Dr. Ijeoma Opara – professors in the School of Social Welfare – received a $5,000 seed grant from the State University of New York to research the impact of social distancing on mental health and substance use during the COVID-19 outbreak. They surveyed more than 650 people between the ages of 18 and 35 from across New York State – including more than 450 Stony Brook students. Approximately 80 percent of participants reported experiencing some form of anxiety and depression in the two weeks before taking the survey. Data collection and analysis are ongoing.

“This really indicates for us that services are needed,” Malik said, “that we need more interventions specific to this population, that there are real concerns amongst college students and young adults in terms of the disease as well.” 

The consensus among professionals and students alike is this: most college students are mentally and physically exhausted, probably for a number of reasons. But the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns and quarantines have exacerbated feelings of self-doubt, stress and loneliness among young adults and has led to high levels of anxiety and depression.

“There were times I felt burnt out because of the pandemic and depressed because everyone was dying, and I didn’t know what to do,” said Tathiana Piquion, a senior health sciences major who moved off campus more than a year ago and has yet to return. “I felt a lack of motivation especially because I had family members who were getting sick.”

As restrictions ease and students settle into face-to-face classes and the campus comes back to life, CAPS, CPO and the Student Health, Wellness and Prevention programs will continue to reach out to students and incorporate peer-to-peer support online and in person.

“Meeting students exactly where they’re at, I think, is the most important thing for mental health outreach,” Dena Spanos said. “I think we’re just going to continue to see things grow. And I do think that it will impact the mental health of students now, but in years to come as well.”

CAPS provides students with psychological and psychiatric support and resources through therapy, counseling, and wellness workshops.

CAPS: 631-632-6720, 
CPO: 631-632-2748, 
Student Support Team: 631-632-7320,