Balancing the demands of life and college can feel like a high-wire act—and the pandemic has made that even more difficult. How is Oxy addressing students’ mental health needs?

By Andy Faught | Illustration by Gwen Keraval | Photos by Marc Campos

In September 2020, six months after the pandemic sent her packing from Oxy, Pacita Del Balso ’23 spent much of each day planted on her childhood bed at her Foster City home. A year earlier, she had stepped onto the Oxy campus excited to begin her college journey.

For the first time in her life, she wrote in the Occidental newspaper last fall, “I had found my place and my people.” But the threat of COVID-19 wrenched from her that happy reality, just as it upended the lives of nearly 20 million U.S. college students abruptly forced into remote learning arrangements.

Del Balso decided her best course would be to take off the fall semester, in hopes of riding out the scourge. Her homebound existence became a dot-to-dot affair: Brush teeth, water plants, do a little classwork for a pair of community college courses she was taking to stay sharp. The torpor left her exhausted and depressed.

“It was terrible for my mental health, and not having my peers around me was awful,” says Del Balso, a philosophy and cognitive science double major who sought out therapy to work through her malaise. “That gave me a push to get medicated, which in the long run was valuable for me.”

She’s hardly alone. In an April 2021 study by the American Council on Education, 73 percent of college presidents identified mental health as a “pressing issue”—up from 53 percent in a survey taken a year earlier. “A number of studies, articles, and blog posts in recent years have hinted that campuses are figuratively hanging off of a mental health cliff,” Kate Wolfe-Lyga and Marcus Hotaling wrote in Higher Education Today in June.

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a national reckoning over race, sexuality, and gender, Occidental is responding to a generation of students far more likely than their predecessors to meet mental health challenges head on. “Throughout higher ed in general, there’s less stigmatization around mental health, which in part has created the need,” says Rob Flot, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who came to Occidental in 2017.

That need has been growing steadily. In the last decade, Oxy has seen a 15 percent increase in the use of counseling services among its students; 30 percent of all students will visit the counseling center during their college career, according to Flot. At the same time, students from marginalized backgrounds are breaking with cultural taboos to seek help. (“Growing up as a Black male myself, counseling is something you wouldn’t typically engage in,” Flot says.)

In counseling, the students talk about everything from homesickness and depression to eating disorders and substance abuse. But now there’s something more. A month into the new academic year, Oxy’s youngest students are presented with a new burden: social anxiety.

“Most of our current first-year students have not been in an in-person classroom since they were about 16,” notes Flot, who has a master’s in clinical psychology. “If you think about the developmental tasks that happen between 16 and 18—getting a driver’s license, dating, values clarification, and negotiating alcohol or drugs and sexuality—all of those were disrupted. There are other dynamics playing a role, but the pandemic is the most significant factor interrupting a student’s expected developmental trajectory.”

The College employs four full-time therapists. Counseling sessions are free, and students are referred to off-campus resources when necessary. While some students lament that it can take weeks to land an appointment, Flot says the College has not denied anyone a meeting with a therapist.

They have much on their minds. For students like McKenna Matus ’24, an undeclared major from Royersford, Pa., pondering her future hardly seems a reasonable prospect because of ongoing unrest in the country and the world. When COVID struck, Matus opted to take a gap year. Following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, she marched in Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles, San Diego, Philadelphia, and New York, once getting struck by a police projectile. Matus identifies as bisexual and supports LGBTQ causes.

The various upheavals can at times be disorienting. Returning to campus, “There’s a large sense of disconnect,” Matus says. “A lot of people we haven’t seen in nearly two years, so there’s excitement but also anxiety, which is a general consensus among my peers.”

But there, too, is emancipation amidst the political and public health uncertainty. “I have a lot of close peers who only felt comfortable coming out because of the political moment we’re in,” Matus says. “All of these movements have been resurfacing or gaining popularity during COVID, which goes to show that my generation is a generation of changemakers. It’s a beautiful thing: People really care.”

While young adults respond to stressors in much the same way as older generations, it’s not unusual, developmentally speaking, for them to have fewer coping skills, says Irma Breakfield, a licensed therapist and interim director of counseling at Emmons Wellness Center. To address students’ needs, “We offer one-on-one counseling, virtual drop-in spaces, groups, and walk-in sessions,” she says. “Providing a variety of spaces is critical to support the mental health needs of the community.”

Meanwhile, the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) has done its part to reach out to underrepresented students, especially those who historically wouldn’t ask for help in large numbers. Oxy sophomore Jaden Burris ’22’s suicide in February 2020 compounded the sense of loss felt on campus in the wake of first-year student Ilah Richardson ’23’s death from natural causes three weeks earlier. “This is a time of extreme anguish and pain for all of us, but I believe the pain is especially poignant and raw for the Black community at Oxy,” Flot wrote in an email to campus following the news of Burris’ passing.

The ICC, working with other offices within the Division of Student Affairs, decided then to make good on what to that point had been years of conversation. The center developed a Black Action Plan to engage the Oxy community at large on issues most keenly felt by students from the African diaspora, including Afro Caribbean, Afro Latin Americans, Black Canadians, and students from multiracial or multiethnic backgrounds. The effort is being shepherded by ICC director Chris Arguedas, who has been meeting regularly since April 2020 with students and staff.

The plan likely will be programmatically different from year to year, depending on the needs of the moment, Arguedas says, but it will rest on three pillars: Ensuring the health and well-being of Black students, nurturing their “belongingness,” and fostering connections among Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Last year, the ICC sponsored a pair of lectures open to the Oxy community: a talk on anti-Blackness by noted community organizer Monique Liston, and a presentation by Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford psychology professor and author of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.

In addition to educational programming. the Black Action Plan seeks to implement structural changes on campus. Recent examples include the new associate director for racial equity position, a Black-themed living community, renovations to MLK Lounge in Pauley Hall, and the creation of a bias education and support team.

“It was long overdue for key stakeholders to come together and think about how to meet the needs of Black students,” Arguedas says. “Many of the goals embedded in the plan existed before the losses of Jaden and Ilah, but that was a very difficult reminder that it was time to take action.”

Mental health support can be found in other forms across campus, and spirituality is another component by which the College hopes to be a salve in hard times. Through late September, the flow of students into the Interfaith Center had been a trickle, “but I anticipate them coming,” says the Rev. Susan Young, director for religious and spiritual life.

In March 2021, the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life, in collaboration with the College’s senior staff, conducted a campuswide memorial service on Zoom to remember loved ones who have died during the pandemic. Over the last five years, the office has operated a student-led “grief group,” “but grief really was just not something that students felt like they wanted to do virtually,” Young says. “We didn’t meet last fall, but we are starting that up again.”

For many students, spirituality—and by association mental health—is “a desire to connect in meaningful ways with other individuals, a desire to experience a sense of health and wellness and well-being, and making meaning in your life,” she adds. “For a lot of our students, that’s social activism and social justice.”

From the time that Oxy students left campus in March 2020, the College has been preparing for their return. Administrators have been “intentional about students’ well-being” and put together an array of programming to support students’ social-emotional health, notes Vivian Garay Santiago, associate dean and director of student success.

Every summer, Santiago and her team partner with their colleagues across campus to facilitate workshops and training sessions to prepare faculty, resident assistant staff, and Orientation leaders for the new academic year. “This year, we expanded the typical presentations and related it to the culture of care,” she says. “We reached out to departments that maybe don’t see themselves as being student support-oriented.”

In addition to creating robust social programs to help students connect with one another, the College offered educational programs on topics such as equity and justice, sexual violence, and the transition back to campus life. Additional wellness options included yoga, hiking, and getting out into the local community.

“We knew that students were going to be anxious socially, and that we were essentially welcoming two classes that have never been on campus before—our incoming first-year students and our sophomores,” Santiago says. “We turned up the volume on those programmatic self-care opportunities.”

One student who is working to promote wellness is Garrett Richardson ’23, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Boise, Idaho. The Oxy junior has battled anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, compounded by his stepfather’s hostility when Richardson came out as gay.

Richardson described his struggles in a video he made last spring for Active Minds, a student club that works to increase awareness about issues surrounding mental health, symptoms related to mental health disorders, and mental health resources on campus and in the surrounding community.

Through its poignancy, Richardson’s video offers a testimonial of hope. “I wanted to get my experience out in the open and bring it into the light,” he says. “I wanted to bring awareness to a disorder that is very commonly misunderstood. People throw around the term OCD when they really don’t know what it means or what it looks like. I wanted to show an honest portrayal of how it can manifest.”

As an RA at Chilcott Hall, Richardson keeps an eye out for students who may benefit from mental health care. Part of his RA training involves learning how to recognize struggles in his peers and direct them to services.

That said, it’s not a perfect science. “In my first year, I wish I would have known about the Los Angeles LGBT Center,” Richardson says. “It offers a plethora of mental health and primary care services that I didn’t know about.”

Like Richardson, Del Balso returned to Oxy this fall in the additional role of RA, with Stearns Hall as her campus home. A month into the semester, she is finding a new rhythm and making up for lost time with friends. “It feels terribly different,” Del Balso admits. “A lot of people are still figuring out what college life looks like now.”

The pandemic has underscored what Flot calls “the fragility of the human experience. None of us are immune to feeling stress, anxiety, loneliness, worry, concern, and depression.” Even so, he says, “It’s been amazing to me to see the Oxy community—students, faculty, and staff—come back to campus eager to stay safe, eager to be here, and eager to again grow and learn in person with each other.” 

Published with the headline "Head First" in the Fall 2021 print edition. Faught wrote “The Biology of Changemaking” in the Winter issue.

Resources for Students

Emmons Wellness Center provides ongoing individual therapy, walk-ins, support groups, drop-ins, crisis support, and consultations through a virtual platform. Fall groups include:

Disordered Eating Support Group
Meeting bi-weekly and designed for those who have experienced disordered eating and are committed to and motivated for recovery, this group focuses on developing coping skills, implementing strategies for recovery, giving and receiving support, and expanding skills needed for recovery.

1st-Gen Connection
An open, supportive space for first-gen students to connect, this group touches on topics specific to the first-gen experience, including adjustment to college, self-care, resiliency, belonging, impostor syndrome, and intersecting identities.

Mindfulness Group
A four-week psycho-educational group that provides opportunities to learn about and engage in various mindfulness practices. Each week focuses on different information and practices, including mindful breathing, mindful eating, body scan, managing difficult emotions, and loving kindness.

Survivors Circle
A safe, confidential environment to provide support and understanding for any student who has experienced sexual assault at any time, Survivors Circle offers a space to heal and recover from trauma, to reestablish safety, and to share experiences with others.