‘A lot of trauma:’ Colorado universities try to connect students to help in stressful year

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Classes at the University of Colorado Boulder were not canceled on March 22 or 23, the day of and following the mass shooting less than two miles from campus. Many students wondered why, in light of such a tragic community event, they were expected to attend class, and Provost Russell Moore was clear in his answer. 

“During this semester, in particular, we’ve been concerned about isolation and loneliness, particularly of our students, staff and faculty,” said Moore at a virtual Q&A for students and community members on March 23. 

“For that reason, this week, yesterday, we asked our faculty to continue to hold class, even if optional, so that they can be there for students to provide space and to listen to students’ concerns.”

Just 44 miles away and less than three days after the King Soopers shooting in Boulder, Colorado State University saw an on-campus stabbing that resulted in one death and one serious injury.

In an academic year muddled by a pandemic and changing learning styles, the mental health and well-being of college students has been declining.

Reid Trotter, the director of counseling services at CSU, said the university’s counseling team has seen an uptick, anecdotally, in students seeking services to discuss the past few weeks’ events. 

He said services all year have been down a bit compared with the past year, but the intensity of students who are seeking help has increased. He said some students come in with problems directly related to COVID-19, along with “all the usual difficulties” students face. 

“The layer of COVID, I suspect, has been sort of amplifying the intensity,” Trotter said. “There’s just not a lot of gas left in the tank to deal with stress.”

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Melanie Parra, director of communications for CU Boulder, echoed Trotter’s assessment. She said the campus saw an increase in use of counseling and psychological services from January to February this year as students returned to campus. There was another increase as students returned to more in-person classes. 

Overall, however, Parra said students using CU Boulder’s counseling services have decreased this year, potentially because of the number of remote students living out of state that need referrals to other providers. 

Like Trotter, she said the “acuity of cases” increased. 

The CDC found that almost 75% of college-aged Americans reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom during the pandemic; 25.5% of the same age group reported having “seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey.”

“In working with students, the campus counseling center has seen how the events of the last year affect different students in different ways,” Parra said. “In general, the impacts have centered around: isolation, increased stress and anxiety, loneliness, and recurring trauma from events.”

Following the March 22 mass shooting that killed 10 and left Boulder shaken, the university has been spreading the word about resources, both on and off campus, that are available, ranging from a crisis text line to information about how to treat a classmate who needs support.

“We need to do everything we can to prevent that sense of isolation and loneliness and to provide a sense of community by being flexible, and empathetic and understanding,” Moore told students.

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But some felt the university wasn’t doing all it could have, or should, in the aftermath of the shooting.

Zoe Schacht, a sophomore at Boulder, said her university has not done enough for its students. “I’m tired of you guys standing for PR rather than caring for your students and community,” she wrote to the school through an Instagram comment. 

Schacht said she felt classes should have been canceled to give students time to mourn and reflect, and if the university had adequate mental health services, it wouldn’t need to rely on classes to serve as a check-in for students.

“To ask a professor to be the person to handle something like that is inappropriate,” she said.

CU Boulder did not provide information on whether there was an increase in students seeking services directly tied to the shooting, or if more or different resources had been made available to students following the shooting. 

In response to the kinds of services CSU students were needing this year, Trotter said the university has improved its outreach for targeted counseling and services, but also created COVID-19-specific outreach including “coping with COVID-19” groups and social media outreach to specific groups. 

He added that as “racially motivated events” like the shooting in Atlanta in mid-March have become more frequent, the university has begun to put structures in place to respond to students in light of tragedy on a “more consistent basis.”

Trotter said that while mental health has been an increasingly prevalent conversation for the past decade, it continued to take on more significance this year and was amplified — at the college level — by the pandemic. 

“There’s a lot of trauma that is starting to emerge out of this year,” Trotter said. “The widespread isolation, I think, is taking its toll on people in a lot of ways.”

Mental health resources

Mental health and crisis resources for CSU students can be found at health.colostate.edu/about-counseling-services/#

Mental health and crisis resources for Boulder students can be found at colorado.edu/today/2021/03/23/traumatic-event-resources-and-support-available.

Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.