This article mentions suicide. For SUNY students struggling, you can text Got5U to 741-741 to SUNY Crisis Text Line for help or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 is 1-800-273-8255.

Collin Lacki has struggled with eye conditions since he was little, when doctors found cataracts at 3 years old. 

Despite a dozen surgeries during his adolescence, his childhood was fairly normal; he played sports, hung out with friends and had plans to follow in his family’s footsteps by joining the military. 

At 14, after a surgery, he lost his eyesight completely. He also lost his friends and his dreams of the future. 

"That was all ripped away from me very quickly and I saw how differently people treated me because of my disability now," he said. "That put me in a very, very severe depression for years. Probably until I was 16 and that’s when I started delving more into music."

Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and three-quarters begin by age 24, overlapping with students’ college years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The 15 months of the pandemic and the isolation, grief and economic impact further exasperated mental health needs among college students.

Students at the 64 SUNY campuses faced similar challenges, but from that adversity came changes in mental health services.

Lacki, who coped with his depression through music, is pursuing a career as a music therapist to help others through their mental health struggles at Niagara County Community College.

He was appointed to the student action committee by SUNY to help bridge the gap between student’s needs and administration early fall 2020. 

Through that role, Collin participated in Active Minds training, which helps train students on how to identify signs of depression or distress in their peers and inform them on mental health resources that they can use in non-crisis situations. 

The training is based on three steps: validating a person’s emotions, appreciating their courage to share their struggles and referring them to skills and services to help them.

"Don’t be afraid. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help," Lacki said. "It’s a sign of strength to show that you have the will to power through it."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, university students suffered from higher rates of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and eating disorders, compared to the general population.

Students across the nation are struggling more because of the pandemic across universities in America as 59% of students experienced high levels of psychological impact because of the pandemic, according to a study released this January.

The study concluded that inadequate efforts to address college students’ mental health needs, especially during the pandemic, may have lasting consequences on their health and education.

"We very quickly recognized that we had to expand our mental health services," Jim Malatras, SUNY chancellor, said. "We immediately launched the campaign #ReachOutSUNY, which expanded mental health services all across the system, nearly 394,000 students."

The public awareness campaign helps address stigma around mental health and educate them on the services at their disposal.

That’s one of several changes and improvements that have happened since Malatras took over as chancellor mid-pandemic at a time when students are struggling more with suicidality, isolation and depression.

SUNY partnered with Thriving Campus to give students access to over 6,000 licensed mental health providers through their app helping remove barriers to finding the help they need.

Another is the expansion of the University at Albany’s peer-to-peer hotline, Middle Earth, across the SUNY system. Its hotline, online peer assistance and peer education help students with their emotional and social needs. 

The hotline, 518-442-5777, is stigma-free and available for students who need emotional and social connections.

It’s open from 1 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday; operating 24 hours over the weekend starting from Friday and ending on Sundays at 11:59 p.m. during the academic year.

Kassandra Sturm, who studied biology and neuroscience and psychology at the university, joined Middle Earth to continue her passion for mental health in her sophomore year of college. 

"A lot of students don’t come from environments where they’re taught that these mental health issues are even relevant," Sturm said. "Having this almost stepping stone to professional help is really important because a lot of students don’t feel comfortable going to their health services on campus."

In addition to these services, SUNY offers free Question, Persuade, Refer or QPR mental health crisis intervention training, which teaches how you should respond when someone says they have suicidal thoughts or ideation. 

The one-hour training is available to all SUNY students, faculty and staff. 

Lacki, who only a few years ago struggled with depression himself, now spends his time cuddling with his dog Cocoa or playing songs on his keyboard. His favorite piece? "Let It Be" by The Beatles. 

"When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be," Lacki sings. "And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be."

For a comprehensive look at the services SUNY offers, visit their website.