College students may be struggling during the pandemic, but experts are there to help. (Illustration/David Pohl)

Student Life

College Students, It’s Tough Out There. Here’s What I’m Hearing

Broderick Leaks, a student mental health expert at USC, shares how to thrive in a time of stress and uncertainty.

November 05, 2020

Let’s be honest, it’s been a rough year to be a college student.

USC student mental health expert Broderick Leaks
Broderick Leaks, USC psychologist and student mental health expert (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

You expected to be here on campus, catching up with old friends, making new ones, learning in labs and classrooms, and finding out more about who you are and what you want to be. However, many challenges have made it much harder for you to have those important experiences — not the least of which is COVID-19.

You’re not alone. We’re in this together, and USC is ready to support you during this difficult time. I’ve been hearing a lot from students these past few months, and I wanted to share some of the things you’ve been telling me and how USC Student Health can help.


“I understand the pandemic is serious, but this wasn’t how I pictured college life. I’m not sure if this is where I should be.”

We know many of you feel disappointed that you can’t build new friendships or strengthen existing relationships in person. You’ve also told us you feel stressed out and drained by a condensed academic schedule and a new way of learning. People see your generation as tech-savvy and glued to your phones, but many of you want a break from your screens. Zoom fatigue is real.

Add in the sense of competition in college, especially at a top university like USC, and you might feel overwhelmed or like you don’t belong. Maybe you envy that other student who just landed an amazing internship or already lined up a great job. There’s a sense that if you’re not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the senior editor of a magazine right after graduation, you’ve somehow failed. That’s only a slight exaggeration.

The truth is, you belong at USC.

And our counselors at USC Student Health and other free resources like the USC Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity can help you gain confidence and develop new academic skills.


“I’m getting used to remote classes, but I’m having a hard time handling things going on at home and in the news.”

Some of you are dealing with a lot of stress in your personal life. You might have family members affected by COVID-19. Maybe you have financial challenges that can cause anxiety and distract from your schoolwork. I know what that is like. I come from a very loving family and had a great childhood, but we struggled financially at times. My college apartment was nicer than the house where I grew up.

If you don’t have enough food, need help with housing or don’t have a laptop and internet access at home, our USC Student Basic Needs office can help with grants and loaner equipment.

For some of you, USC was your oasis — a place of peace. Now, you are forced to live in tough, sometimes traumatic or abusive environments. That’s a difficult situation, and USC has made exceptions in certain cases to allow college students to live on campus to ensure they are safe and healthy. We have a dedicated office of Campus Wellbeing and Crisis Intervention that can provide additional guidance and resources.

We also know you might be affected by the major social and political upheaval occurring in society today. Racism and anti-Blackness is at the forefront of the national conversation. We are collaborating with our students of color to handle a flood of requests for therapy, outreach and workshops on coping. Many other groups face similar challenges, from our Asian-identified students dealing with discrimination and racism related to COVID-19 to our LGBTQ+ students who feel like they aren’t understood or embraced at home. We are here to support you and provide resources that can help you find the right way forward.

Your generation has a lot of passion. You are highly educated, and you’re mobilizing in ways we’ve never seen before. I know you have pain. I know you hurt. I know you are angry. But I also know you’re going to demand change. That gives me hope.


“It feels so much harder to be with my friends. What can I do when I start to feel lonely?”

It can be tough to connect with others right now, but we’re very encouraged to see so many of you thriving and engaging in healthy ways of coping. You’ve been very intentional about coming together in a safe way. On a recent walk around campus, I saw you gathering in large circles at a safe distance and wearing masks. Those of you living off campus or at home are taking advantage of the many online opportunities to meet and socialize. Despite all the challenges this year, you are finding new ways to connect and be healthy.

Fortunately, we have many resources at USC to help you thrive and meet your life and academic goals. The president and provost have committed funding to greatly expand our USC student mental health support services. Telehealth appointments are available to students living in California, and you’ve told us that you found these services extremely helpful. Our satisfaction rate for these telehealth sessions is between 94% and 97%.

Our group sessions are also a great way for you to connect with others who might be facing similar situations. We have regular group meetings to discuss anxiety or mood challenges, mindfulness techniques, equity and inclusion, eating disorders and many other topics. You can learn new coping skills and practice them with your peers with support from professional therapists and counselors.

Due to licensing laws, we can’t provide these clinical services to those of you physically located outside California. But we’re dedicated to getting you the care and support you need. We have a full-time care coordination team that will help you connect with resources in your local community. In addition, you can attend our Let’s Talk drop-in sessions. These outreach and prevention meetings are open to any USC student across the world. You can meet with a mental health expert and learn basic life skills and coping techniques. We offer these sessions in different languages and at different times to help ensure everyone has access, no matter where you live.


“With everything going on, I feel mentally drained and overwhelmed. Is it just me?”

This is a unique time in our country, and there’s no real playbook or formula for how to deal with challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic or the racism pandemic. I really encourage you to double down on your self-care and pay attention to your physical and mental health. Be intentional about connecting with the people you love and who love you. Be kind to yourself. The more solid you are in your foundation, the better you’ll be able to withstand this uncertainty, anxiety and stress. It’s not always easy, but you can thrive during this time. You can make new connections, learn about yourself and explore new interests and hobbies.

During the fall 2020 semester, there has been virtually no wait for mental health services for our college students. USC has invested a lot in our student mental health program. We’ve greatly expanded the number of therapists who can help you be your best self. We’re here for you, and we want you to reach out to us. We want to walk alongside you and help you figure all this out.

Broderick Leaks is vice chair for student mental health and clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. He serves as director of counseling and mental health at USC Student Health. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.