Ashley Griffiths moved from Big Bear, California, to the University of Montana to face the unknowns and fears of becoming a college freshman away from home, coupled with COVID-19 restrictions. Her battle with mental health and the surrounding stigma made her transition more difficult.
Griffiths, an athletic training major, has been struggling with her mental health since her early years of high school.
“It’s hard to reach out and actually be open with my feelings,” she said. “So, I feel like it goes both ways. People need to reach out to others.”
College students in Montana and across the nation have had to take on the challenge of leaving home and starting over in a new place amid the global pandemic. Since last year, officers at UM’s police department have had to check on students more often, depression and anxiety have spiked and students overall are in need of more support. There are places on campus to find mental health resources, but some say more action is needed.
Upon arriving at UM, Griffiths felt she had nobody to go to. She felt alone. Then, when she did build trust and open up to somebody, they didn’t know how to deal with it.
Griffiths said the stigma surrounding depression and mental health tends to be more intense in older generations. She said it is overlooked and not made a high enough priority.
Brad Giffin, a lieutenant at the University of Montana Police Department, said the number of welfare checks conducted by officers on campus has increased since the pandemic began. Welfare checks are calls made by concerned friends or family requesting a student be checked on.
Giffin said the welfare cases usually involve mental health issues, including depression and suicidal thoughts. Officers’ protocol is to physically check on a student and report back to the people who made the call.
“Most people in college ... are away from their normal support group,” he said. “You couple that with being restricted to your room and not being able to get out and make friends and have conversations — we think that those things definitely have an impact on a student’s mental health.”
Giffin sits on the University’s Behavioral Intervention Team, which he said has also seen an increase in referrals.
Behavioral intervention referrals are made for any student of concern, whether for depression or struggles with school. The team, which also consists of counselors and other police officers, meets every Thursday to provide each student with resources to help them. Anyone can submit a referral through the University website.
Dorm living is not the same experience as it was pre-pandemic. Resident assistants throughout campus are working to improve morale and assist residents struggling with their mental health.
Kieli Davia, RA for the third floor of Craig Hall, said a majority of her training was learning how to handle various mental health scenarios and the importance of checking in with people in her hall.
“[Residents] can come talk to me as much as they want,” she said. “There are some things you don’t want to talk about to your RA, but I am here for all my ladies.”
Davia said there are a variety of resources she can utilize to support students or refer them to, such as the Student Advocacy Resource Center, or SARC.
Rebecca White, a freshman and dance major at UM, was diagnosed with depression in elementary school. She said COVID-19 worsened her mental health as social distancing and the inability to physically connect with friends made her feel isolated.
White misses the strong support system she had with her family at home. Yet, she continues to connect with her mom via phone and has formed a strong bond with her roommate.
White also said she believes UM has done a good job making campus resources and opportunities for those who need support known to students. She especially felt like UM successfully advertised various resources to help students get through big life changes, and helped her remember she wasn’t alone, at freshman orientation.
But while Griffiths believes she has also been made well-aware of campus resources through emails, advisers and resident assistants on campus, she said she has never been reached out to.
Karl Rosston, suicide prevention coordinator at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said people don’t talk enough about suicide and depression. He said while there has not been a jump in suicides, there has been a noticeable increase in depression and anxiety amid the global pandemic.
Rosston believes that, while the topic may not be pleasant to speak about, disregarding it causes further isolation to those in need of support. He said the only way we can start to address it is by letting students know it is okay to talk about it.
While COVID-19 has raised awareness, Rosston said suicide is a cultural issue. “It takes a cultural shift in thinking in order to address it,” he said.
Rosston also said the suicide conversation should begin before students start their college careers. He thinks freshman orientation should include suicide risk awareness and prevention, in addition to sexual harassment and alcohol training.
In the mean time, Rosston said he will continue to work closely with universities to provide adequate suicide prevention training and resources for Montana schools.
“Be aware of people around you and look out for each other,” Griffiths said. “Know the signs and symptoms of depression and what each other is going through.”
For a list of UM’s mental health resources, visit www.umt.edu/diversity/resources/mental-health.php. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255. For those looking to further educate themselves on suicide at the college level, visit the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.