College students struggle with mental health as pandemic drags on… Nurses say morale has hit low…

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People handed flowers to strangers on campus this week, and wrote encouraging notes in chalk. Students played with baby goats and tail-wagging dogs brought in to comfort them. Classes were canceled Tuesday, pop-up counseling centers appeared in dorms and concerned parents brought cookies and hugs to campus.

It has been a week of grief and disbelief at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There have been two deaths by suicide since the semester began, according to the university, and an attempted suicide last weekend that prompted an outpouring of sadness and worry.

The reasons behind any suicide are complex, and little is publicly known about these deaths. But the response on the Chapel Hill campus has been immediate and intense. And it has resonated nationally, coming at a time when many young people are feeling particularly burdened.

College students nationwide are more stressed – with the coronavirus pandemic adding loneliness, worry about illness, economic distress, relentless uncertainty and churn to a time of life that is already challenging for many. Demand for mental health services had already been high, but a recent study of college students found increased levels of anxiety and isolation during the pandemic.

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Melanie Mead, an emergency department nurse, remembers the first time she drove the seven minutes to work after nonessential businesses shuttered last year. It was 7 a.m., and no one was on the road.

“I am driving into something bigger than all of us,” thought Mead, who works at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Mass. Those early pandemic days weren’t so much busy as full of fear. When she’d get home from a long day, she’d undress outside and sprint to the shower, worried about exposing her wife and two children to the coronavirus.

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“During that time, I was just holding on to hope that there was an ending in sight. Is this something that’s going to go away?” Mead said. “Obviously it didn’t.”

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