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  • Blake Chapin

COVID-19 affecting college students' mental health

Updated: May 5, 2021

The mental stress that comes from living through a pandemic is having a major impact on college students nationwide, including at CofC.

In fact a study of students at Dartmouth University last spring found that COVID-19 “had an immediate negative impact on the emotional well-being of the college students” being studied, finding a “large-scale shift in mental health and behavior” compared to college students over previous years. Depression and anxiety spiked noticeably at the onset of COVID-19, according to Jeremy Huckins, a lecturer on psychological and brain sciences.

Student stress has been an growing issue for many years. Student workload and grade setbacks have always been known to create anxiety. Add in the 2020 news cycle, weeks in isolation and lockdown and an uncertainty of when the pandemic will end - and it’s a perfect recipe for a mental health breakdown.

Another new survey asked college students their overriding concern this fall, and 44% said “stress, anxiety and loneliness” were their top concerns.

The study, conducted by twin sisters who graduated from UC Davis in May, asked 4,000 college students how they were faring during the pandemic.

The responses showed that heightened stress and anxiety - whether about achieving academic success, finding future employment or paying for the next meal - is currently dominating the student psyche.

High stress levels as a whole over a prolonged period of time are not good for human health, as well as the human brain function.

College students have been experiencing more serious mental health issues in recent years, and this is only being exacerbated in 2020 by nine months of Covid-19.

Mental health effects of social distancing

Social distancing has been an effective way to slow the spread of the virus, but it has left many people isolated and alone in their homes.

This complete disruption of life around the world has undoubtedly had mental health effects, and one UK study specifically looked into the feelings of depression associated with being isolated because of the pandemic.

Without being able to carry on daily activities and routines, depression and anxiety can arise along with feelings of uncertainty.

But nowhere is this more pronounced than with college students who are used to a busy academic schedule, a lively campus life, and an active social existence. Taking away this social interaction - and then adding in isolation from friends and peers and even family, makes for a very lonely existence.

According to certified therapist Annie Higgins, this isolation has caused some people to “turn toward negative coping strategies,” such as increased drug and alcohol use or an unhealthy dependence on social media.

Higgins noted that college students have already experienced increasing isolation as social media and technology have allowed us to keep a growing distance from others.

And some studies have shown that social media already increases feelings of depression, anxiety as well as isolation, comparison, and lack of contentment. With social distancing being implemented to help stop COVID-19 spread, and social media use skyrocketing, students are finding themselves more depressed and alone than ever.

According to Higgins, “isolation has always lead to anxiety and depression… connection is such an important part of our ability to thrive.”

College of Charleston student Bella Durso has definitely felt the isolation.

“I mean, it’s for sure a lot lonelier during these times, and I know that it is because of the virus,” she said.

Covid impact on academics

With a noted decline in the mental health of college students across the country, there is often a decline in productivity as depression sets in.

Higgins explained that one of the biggest effects of COVID-related stress is “difficulty concentrating and disruption to sleep”

Both of these elements are extremely important for successful academics. And not having one just creates a snowball effect for the other. “Sleep is when the brain heals and rejuvenates for the next day,” Higgins explained. Without adequate sleep, she points out, the brain has more trouble focusing on the tasks at hand the following day.

Likewise, a lack of focus could produce more anxiety in some students, resulting in less sleep and promoting a vicious cycle of low productivity and high stress.

University of Houston senior Xariz Ortiz has been experiencing this cycle.

“It has never been harder to focus on my studies,” she says, adding that her sleep schedule is “very off. I for sure do not get as much sleep as I used to last year.”Many students thrive in classroom discussion environments, and without that atmosphere as so many classes have moved to strictly online, students are having a harder time being engaged in learning and interacting with their peers.

It’s not just interacting with peers. For many students, the lack of easy professor-student interaction is a problem as well, but none more so than for students with learning disabilities who rely on the personal relationships to help with the challenges of the classroom.

According to College of Charleston professor Merissa Ferrara, nearly one-fifth of her students did not complete the first quiz of the semester - a much higher rate than normal - because of their difficulty adapting to the online environment.

For Ferrara, this represents a huge increase in uninvolved students. She has also seen this effect in her office hours that are basically “nonexistent” since few students are coming to campus.

While Ferrara’s office hours are typically in high demand and utilized by many students to gain understanding, most are not dropping by to chat or ask questions.

Post-graduate success

A concern for any college student is ‘What will I do after I graduate?” but that is even more of a concern in a job market that will likely still be feeling effects of the pandemic for years to come. While this is already a stressful time for students, coming of age in a pandemic economy undoubtedly adds to that.

”Things are so up in the air and so much is uncertain,” said Ortiz. “Of course I’m nervous about graduating during this time."

The U.S. economy and American industry are changing rapidly, much of which is due to covid. Many fields of industry have become extremely lucrative, while others, such as restaurants, have crashed and burned due to corona.

Not only is the state of the economy a concern for graduating students, but their own state of mind is concerning as well.

Many students feel discouraged during this time with the world being turned upside down.

Ortiz states that she is “going to stick with her goals, short term and long term, and just continue to look for opportunities when they arise.”

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