COLUMBUS (WCMH) — With the move to virtual classes, bars and restaurants forced closed, and empty stadiums on campus, college life was flipped upside down for students at Ohio State last year.

And with those students already preparing for a return to campus in the fall, mental health experts at the university say stress and anxiety is growing concern.

“We have a mental health pandemic inside of the COVID-19 pandemic right now,” warns Dr. Bern Melnyk, Ohio State’s Chief Wellness Officer and Dean of the College of Nursing.

For many people, the challenges of the pandemic have become unmanageable on their own.

It was the day-to-day monotony of COVID-19 that was the tipping point for one Buckeye student.

“You’re going through every day, pretty much, I felt alone,” fourth-year student Mary Trabue recalls.
For Mary, it was a struggle just to get out of bed at times over the past year-and-a-half.

“I just started to realize I was completely overwhelmed with assignments,” Mary admits.

Talking to NBC4, Mary paints a picture where she would wake up, sit at her desk, open her laptop, and spend the entirety of the day attending online classes and working on homework.

Every day began to feel the same. The drive to make A’s quickly turned into satisfaction over passing grades, and the separation from classmates left feelings of seclusion and isolation.

“All the sudden my motivation started to plummet,” Mary reveals. “I didn’t know that they were going through the same struggles I was having. I thought it was all just me.”

But a new study by Ohio State shows that Mary was anything but alone.

“We prioritize wellness, mental health. It’s just so critical because it’s linked to academic performance,” Dr. Melnyk describes.

Dr. Melnyk was hired as the first ever Chief Wellness Officer at a college or university in the nation. She says many schools are now following in school’s footsteps.

But an April survey revealed 71% of students reported feelings of burnout — up from 40% the previous year.
And while physical activity fell, unhealthy eating and the use of alcohol and tobacco rose.

“If you experience symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, to the point it interferes with your concentration, your judgement, your functioning, that’s the time you need to get help,” encourages Dr. Melnyk.

Health experts have developed the “Five-to-Thrive” to help students navigate their feelings of stress and anxiety.

The concept is a checklist that encourages college students to: establish healthy habits, build resiliency and coping skills, find local mental health support, grow and maintain support systems, and don’t wait to get help.

“Talking to her it was like instant validation of, ‘What you’re going through is normal. This is a large transition for everyone, and no one was equipped for this transition either. It was so sudden,'” Mary recalls of her conversations with a counselor.

Mary eventually sought help from a specialist to reverse her spiral.

It’s there that she developed her own coping techniques.

“Lifting heavy weights to me is such an accomplishment, and there’s such a group dynamic with other lifters who push you forward, and I found a great community,” describes Mary, who has revived her passion for power-lifting in recent months.

With the school planning to return to a closer-to-normal way of operating, Mary is now hopeful about what the approaching school year will bring.

While Ohio State, they continue leading the commitment to create a culture of resources and support for students like her.

“It takes a culture, and you can’t do this in isolation,” says Dr. Melnyk. “If we don’t equip our students with life skills, coping, and resiliency, they aren’t going to perform well academically or throughout life.”