Why some Utah students have found it difficult to return to in-person classes

And some tips to stay sharp on campus.

(Marcie Young Cancio | Amplify Utah) Students are back on campus at Salt Lake Community College and it has been mentally draining for some.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

The pandemic persists and its effect on mental health continues to rise.

A recent study published by Science Direct revealed an increase in depressive symptoms in U.S. adults from 27.8% in 2020 to 32.8% in 2021. Depression, anxiety and stress can impact academic performance, which experts say explains why the transition back to in-person learning for many college students has felt awkward, difficult and draining.

People can’t control the pandemic, but they can control how they cope with it. Using cognitive strategies, emotional coping skills and mindfulness-based exercise can make the transition back to in-person learning and normal social interactions a smoother one.

“There’s been a college student mental health crisis over the past 10 years, and it seems like the pandemic has exacerbated that,” said Scott Kadera, a psychologist and counseling manager at Salt Lake Community College.

Kadera said the need for mental health services has increased since the pandemic, although utilization of services at SLCC has dropped. The Center for Health and Counseling, Kadera said, is providing more counseling sessions to fewer clients.

“There are more people in distress,” he noted. “A confounding factor is that our enrollment dropped, so there is less demand. If we had the same [enrollment], my impression is that more would be coming in.”

In 2020, SLCC saw its enrollment drop by 2,000 students. In the fall of 2021, the number was down, but only slightly, another 68 students. The college has an overall enrollment of 27,225.

He said depression can cause people to experience a decrease in energy, motivation, attention and resilience. That makes returning to activities we once did more difficult, even if it’s a positive change.

“There have been a lot of studies in the last few years that demonstrate when a system is stressed or under a lot of pressure, there can be physiological changes to the brain and it has a significant impact on an individuals function,” said Mark Fox, a speech-language pathologist specializing in cognitive rehabilitation at Intermountain Healthcare.

This, Fox said, explains why the transition back to in-person learning has been difficult for so many college students. Isolation has caused social skills to atrophy when it comes to interpreting environmental stimuli, body language, social cues and complex environments. He noted people might feel awkward when socializing in-person, distracted by the unfamiliar environment around them, and feel much more drained at the end of the day compared to interacting virtually.

“As people start re-engaging, there’s going to be discomfort and some feelings of, ‘what am I doing?’” Fox explained. “Communication is a skill, and social interaction has a myriad of components. Just like any other activity, if you don’t practice it to a certain extent, you can lose it.”

Being on campus requires more energy and engagement with surroundings, as well as thinking about social responses in real-time. When communicating via text or email, there is an opportunity to perfect a message before hitting send.

“It gives a sense of distance when you communicate virtually. In person we have to manage our body language,” Fox said. “It’s spontaneous communication, which is more difficult.”

Under conditions that cause the brain to be stressed or alerted, the brain hyper-activates primitive portions focused on survival, fight and flight, Fox explained.

Being in primitive states makes it harder to think, pay attention and process information. If the nervous system is constantly activated like this, it affects cognition and executive function, leading to struggles with academic performance and anything involving cognition.

“A lot of the things that stimulate primitive responses aren’t necessarily life-threatening,” Fox said. “We have to learn to be able to go through a process of using our higher-level cognitive functions to decide the stimulus is or isn’t something to worry about.”

He said things like stress about school, relationships and the constant stimulation from technology can activate these responses. For higher-level cognitive functions to work, the nervous system needs to be calm. Here are some strategies that could help:

• Create lists, breaking tasks into small steps, to plan out the day, and use a monthly and weekly planner. This helps take the cognitive load off the brain and conserve valuable energy that can be used elsewhere.

• Movement and mindfulness-based activities can help calm nervous system, so a person can respond to a situation, instead of reacting. It also helps shift the mindset to focus on what is controllable, instead of what isn’t.

“Mind-body exercise helps put a pause on your thoughts and consciously choose a different direction to go in,” said Paula Nielson-Williams, SLCC recreation manager. Using tools like the Insight Timer app helps establish or continue a meditation practice, and Yoga Journal offers free, on-demand yoga videos for all levels.

The connection between the mind and body is distinct, and one has a great effect on the other, Nielson-Williams said.

“If the body is moving and healthy it can help the mind be clear,” Nielson-Williams said. “It’s an infinite circle of mind-body connection. One affects the other and vise-versa”

While these exercises can help you cope, it’s important to know when to seek professional help.

“People think they need to have extreme symptoms in order to seek help,” Kadera said, “But if you’re just unhappy and it’s not how you want to be feeling, then that’s a good reason to come in and get some services.”

SLCC offers individual, couples, and crisis counseling to students and staff. There is also the 24-Hour Community Crisis Line at 801-587-3000.

Juliana DeMay wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.