‘It’s OK to not be OK’: How COVID-19 is impacting students’ mental health

(Illustration by Julie Freijat | Collegian Media Group)

Mental health is a growing concern for many since the start of the pandemic. Some Kansas State faculty spoke up about the importance of taking these concerns seriously rather than dismissing them.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Onyedikachi Ekwerike, instructor of leadership communication, said. “Fifty percent of Americans struggle with their mental health and you are not alone.”

With over seven years of practice using his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Ekwerike said he’s concerned about K-State students’ mental health.

“We need to create more safe spaces for students and learn not to stigmatize, but be more empathetic with our mental health issues,” Ekwerike said.

Ekwerike is also the founder of Postpartum Support Network Africa.

“A lot of students struggle with depression and anxiety,” Ekwerike said. “Generally, we just need to be more kind to each other and be more encouraging of professional mental help.”

Ekwerike’s advice to those trying to improve their mental health includes exercising and getting out of the house and into the sunlight, but he said it goes deeper than that.

“Build relationships and invest in them,” Ekwerike said. “Check up on your friends in isolation and take advantage of digital platforms to stay in touch with family and friends.”

Since Zoom is used for many online classes, digital platforms have become the norm of communication between students today. This digital shift is cited as an explanation for declining quality of some students’ mental health since the start of the pandemic.

“Not being able to hang out with friends has affected kids in negative ways, and no one really knows what to do to get help,” Spencer Dugan, sophomore in construction science and management, said. “It’s really hard for me to log on to Zoom every day. I used to make a lot of friends in classes and now I can’t hang out or make new friends in those classes.”

Dugan echoed Ekwerike’s point that professional mental health services should be widely offered rather than stigmatized, especially now.

“The idea of opening up and having more sessions for free therapy sessions would go a long way,” Dugan said.

Wellcat Ambassadors aims to provide some of that extra help to struggling students. The program consists of certified peer educators focused on the wellbeing of students.

“It scared me for the students to be socially isolated,” Megan Katt, health director and Wellcat Ambassador advisor, said. “Students need other people to connect with to make it through college.”

The purpose of the program is for ambassadors to provide education and serve as role models to their peers in decisions regarding their health and wellbeing.

“I will always offer the WellCat Ambassadors as that support if students need anything, even if it’s just to chat,” Katt said. “Its not just something you can go to your therapist and it’s just fixed. You have to take care of your mental health forever.”

Like Ekwerike, Katt said she wants K-State students to understand that mental health struggles are valid and worthy of attention.

“You are not alone in whatever you are going through,” she said.