College is supposed to be one of the best times of a person's life as students experience freedom and learn new things, but the pandemic has changed that. COVID-19 limited social life, canceled internships and altered the learning environment, to name a few changes.
"It wasn't until spring of 2020 — I had to take a break because I got really bad," Brenda "Ren" Huerta, a junior at Bradley University, said. "I think the worst that I've ever been, very close to suicide, and it was just the isolation period I believe during COVID."
For Huerta, school life turned lonely. It triggered her depression, pushing her to take a semester off — a “mental health break” as she described it. But her depression is nothing new; it goes all the way back to when she was 11 years old.
"I would self-harm by cutting, and I isolated myself a lot," Huerta said. "I did not have many friends."
Increasingly on college campuses, students are turning to each other for support though organizations like Active Minds, which has seen chapters double nationally to 600 over the last six years.
"Now I have a bunch of resources, support systems, I have a lot of closer friends, people I talk to on a daily basis that I think just fills up my day in a way that encourages me to keep taking care of myself," Huerta said.
The pandemic worsened mental health for college students. Nationally, many colleges and universities haven’t been prepared to handle that growing demand.
A 2020 survey found nearly 40% of students experienced depression, with 1 in 7 saying they had thoughts of suicide. Nearly 90% of college counseling centers surveyed said demand for their services have gone up.
"There's a lot that could go wrong if we don't normalize these issues," said Gabi Necastro, a sophomore at Bradley University and the president of Active Minds student chapter. "That's really what fueled me to become a mental health advocate because I knew several people back in my high school that also struggled but weren't going to say anything."
At Bradley, in Peoria, Illinois, students are taking initiative by advocating for a mental health expert to visit campus.
They found David Romano, a psychotherapist and speaker who uses his own struggle with depression to educate and normalize discussions on mental health.
"I was feeling so much pain and heaviness — I was looking for any escape," Romano said.
"One of the things people fail to realize is that everyone has mental health, everyone is experiencing this, it's not something that's just for a small population or a few folks," he said.
Romano takes a personal approach, speaking with students before and after his talk and sharing his message:
"There's really three things that we can all do: You can practice self-care, that you can normalize the conversation and you can simply just connect with your community, connect with the people around you," Romano said.
For the student organizers, it's knowing that an event like this makes a difference.
"I had a friend that passed away, so at that point, I always wanted to be around, and be that resource for someone," Dionte Henderson, a sophomore at Bradley University, said.
If you need to talk to someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.