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How the COVID-19 Crisis is Affecting Students’ Mental Health

The headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have been mostly about the number of deaths it has caused. But there have also been substantial impacts on mental health. Studies indicate that people of all ages and from all walks of life have experienced mental health issues as the pandemic continues to rage. Students in college or heading to college certainly have not been spared COVID-related mental health issues. In fact, both current college students and prospective students report an array of mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic, from anxiety and depression to feelings of isolation and concerns about the future. Great Value Colleges recently conducted a survey about the effects that the pandemic is having on the college plans of both prospective and current students. A summary of the results of this survey has recently been published.

If you have similar feelings, you are not alone. This is a widespread problem, and one that mental health experts warn could have lasting effects. From higher rates of substance abuse to the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people around the globe will face persistent mental health issues even after the pandemic is over.

Let’s explore some of the common ways that COVID-19 has impacted mental health.

Depression is a Concern

Depression is the most common mental health condition. It has been a pervasive presence on college campuses for many years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this situation.

Even before COVID-19, depression was becoming more and more common amongst college students. In a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and reported by Reuters, the rate of moderate to severe depression among college students rose nearly 18 percent between 2007 and 2018.

That study involved surveying more than 610,000 undergraduate students between 2011 and 2018. Another 177,000 undergraduate students were involved between 2007 and 2018. Of the students surveyed, most were between the ages of 18 and 22. Male students comprised 43 percent of respondents, with females comprising 57 percent. The vast majority of respondents – 74 percent – were white.

So while this study has some limitations in terms of generalizability to groups of a different age or racial group, it paints a pretty bleak picture of the mental health struggles of college-aged students. And while college counseling centers have reported higher rates of students using mental health services, the rates of depression have continued to grow.

This bears out in the data from a recent survey conducted by Great Value Colleges in which 70 of 176 respondents indicated that the COVID-19 crisis had affected their mental health.

Among those 70 responses, many people referenced feelings of depression as well as feelings of “sadness,” feeling “disconnected,” and that “isolation…has added to my depression.”

Furthermore, many respondents linked their feelings of uncertainty to increased feelings of depression. From worrying about present and future challenges to “becoming introverted” to feeling like “the world is against me,” the uncertainty of life during the pandemic is wreaking havoc on college students and incoming college students.

However, the same survey revealed some good news – all but 20 respondents reported feeling that their school is taking proper steps to keep students safe during the pandemic. 

Naturally, feeling safe is a critical part of good mental health. For students who are already feeling depressed, worrying about their health and safety at school will only exacerbate those feelings of depression.

Anxiety is Common

Like depression, anxiety is a widespread mental health condition. This is particularly true of college-aged and pre-college students. And, much like depression, rates of anxiety have only increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, 71 percent of participants reported “increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Among the stressors most commonly reported include:

  • Fear about personal health
  • Worry about the health of loved ones
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Decreased social interaction
  • Increased worry about academic performance

Our survey of 176 students generated similar results. Of the students that noted increased feelings of anxiety due to COVID-19, responses ranged from “feeling unmotivated” to feeling “less focused.” Others reported feeling anxious from being “overworked” and not having adequate interactions with family and friends.

Yet other respondents zeroed in on another source of anxiety – being cooped up indoors most of the time. This type of “COVID cabin fever” can be difficult to overcome, given the strict rules regarding what people can do, where they can go, and when, during the strictest of lockdowns. Additionally, social distancing and isolation go against our very instincts, which can cause great stress as lockdowns continue.

Another study by researchers at Boston University found that a primary stressor for college students and incoming college students during the pandemic is related to finances.

This bears out in two distinct ways. First, students are worried about the cost of attending college, and second, they are worried about their prospects of getting a job in an economy that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

That same study revealed another concerning issue: many students are worried about a lack of easily accessible mental health care. In other words, students that are already highly anxious due to traditional stressors and COVID-19 are also stressed about not having easy access to help.

For many colleges and universities, budgets are beginning to tighten. Unfortunately, in some cases, this means cutting programs for student mental health.

However, Boston University researchers argue that “there is a strong economic case for investing in programs and services to support student mental health.” Why? There is a two-fold increase in college dropout rates among students with depression or a related mental health issue.

So, not only are depression and anxiety very serious mental health issues but, left untreated, they could have significant effects on a student’s ability to continue their education.

In that regard, this becomes a vicious cycle – feelings of anxiety make it hard to concentrate on schoolwork. As one gets further and further behind, the anxiety level only increases. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to catch up, and with incomplete or missing assignments, missed deadlines, and missed tests adding up, dropping out of school becomes more likely. The prospect of “being a failure” adds more anxiety, as do the diminished financial prospects of not completing one’s college degree.

In a very real sense, the anxiety that college students and incoming college students feel today due to the pandemic could impact their overall mental health and financial security for years and years to come.

Feelings of Isolation Have Increased

For many college students, the prospect of living on campus with other students is one of the most exciting aspects of going to college.

Likewise, looking forward to meeting new people, making new friends, and having new life experiences is something many college-aged students hold dear. So too is taking part in class discussions with other students that are passionate about their studies. Going to the library, having dinner together in the cafeteria, and congregating together outside for frisbee, BBQs, and other activities make the college experience something special to look forward to.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that.

Since many colleges and universities have moved to online education, virtually all of the social activities listed above are no longer available. Sure, you can take online classes and “meet” with professors and classmates via video chat, but it just isn’t the same as human interaction in the real world. What’s more, the college experience in 2020 is without many other social events. Commencements have been moved online or canceled altogether, robbing graduates of having that moment of recognition with their families. Speaking of families, some college students aren’t able to go home to see their loved ones. This made holidays in 2020 a challenging time for many college students who found themselves alone for the first time.

Another component of this isolation is quite literal – thousands of college students that might have had the option to study on campus have found themselves isolated in quarantine after traveling to campus or testing positive for the coronavirus once they got there. Without face-to-face contact with other people (except medical staff coming to check on them) for two weeks straight, some students face college being an extremely lonely place.

This detachment is causing significant feelings of isolation among college students and high schoolers headed to college.

In our survey of 176 students, the topic of isolation was quite common. Comments about feeling “alone,” “disconnected,” and “confined” show that some respondents have developed an extreme sense of isolation from others as the pandemic has unfolded. College-aged students are already at high-risk for feelings of loneliness, and the pandemic has exacerbated that situation. 

However, there are things you can do to help drive these feelings of loneliness and isolation away.

  • First, understand that it’s okay to feel this way. Moreover, understand that many other people are in a similar situation and are having the same emotional response.
  • Second, talk about your feelings with people you trust. This might be your parents or siblings, a good friend, or your significant other. Even if you can’t have face-to-face conversations, frequent phone calls, or video chats can go a long way in helping you deal with isolation.
  • Speaking of communication, the third thing you can do is be proactive about reaching out to others. Call friends you’ve lost touch with. Have a daily video chat with your family. Ask your friends and neighbors to get together outside for some socially-distanced visiting. The more effort you put into connecting with others, the less secluded you will feel.
  • Fourth, take time for yourself each day. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with schoolwork and worries about the pandemic. By taking a few minutes each day to focus on yourself and do something you enjoy, you’ll find that your mood will be lifted and your spirit regenerated.
  • Lastly, develop a daily routine. Wake up and go to bed at consistent times. Practice good hygiene. Eat nutritious meals. Set goals for what you want and need to accomplish with your studies each day. Having a routine gives structure to your day, helps you set and achieve goals each day, and gives you a variety of activities to look forward to each day as well.

There are Concerns About the Future

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of havoc. But it isn’t just the past or present that incoming college students and college-aged students are worried about; they’re also worried about the future.

How much longer will we be under stay-at-home orders? Will in-person classes come back next semester? When will the virus end? Will I be able to find employment after I graduate? Are my loved ones okay? These are just a few questions that people wrestle with each and every day.

Our survey revealed a wide range of concerns about the future among respondents. Some noted that new regulations regarding masks and vaccines cause them concern. Others noted that they have become more introverted and are “always worried about the future.” Still other respondents explained that they have “lost interest in socializing and learning,” which understandably results in concerns about loss of relationships and future difficulties with school.

Additionally, a majority of respondents indicated that the COVID-19 crisis has impacted them financially. While many have felt the pinch of tough economic times, they’ve retained employment, at least for now. However, some respondents noted that not only are they out of school but that they also do not currently have a job. This has led to feelings of being “pretty much screwed.”

It isn’t just one’s personal future that causes concern, either. Many people – high school and college students among them – are rightfully worried about what the future holds for their loved ones. In fact, one respondent in our survey spoke about the emotional toll of having loved ones suffer through COVID. The worry and stress of what might happen to you in the future are enough to be overwhelming. Also, worrying about the future of your loved ones can be downright unbearable.

However, there are some students that see a silver lining.

One of our survey respondents talked about having more time to “focus on my physical and mental wellness that I never seemed to be able to when I was so busy with everything else but myself!” Using your spare time for self-improvement could be key in helping you develop and maintain a more positive outlook for the future.

Harvard Business Review reports much of the same; that students are developing more concern for others and devising ways to help people in need. What’s more, students are reporting greater interest in careers that focus on helping others and improving society.

So, while it’s easy to feel like the world is crashing down around you, there are still opportunities to see the positives in what the future might hold.

What You Can Do to Improve Your Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As bleak as things are, there are specific, actionable steps you can take to improve your mental health. The tips outlined below will be effective for you now and in the future, as you strive to overcome the effects of living in such uncertain times.

Improve Your Diet

Being stuck at home and isolated from your family and friends makes it easy to let your dietary habits go by the wayside. While it’s easy to pop something in the microwave for dinner or open a bag of chips as a nighttime snack, proper nutrition is crucial for improved mental health.

Research shows that eating less junk food and more foods with proper nutrients can positively impact mood. Specifically, foods like vegetables, fish, and legumes have been shown to diminish feelings of depression.

Additionally, rather than relying on pre-packaged foods, preparing meals is often a more nutritious route to take. Besides, taking time to cook meals can help break up the monotony of the day and give you a chance to learn new skills that can have long-lasting positive impacts on your life.

Get Enough Rest

There is a strong connection between sleep and mental health. Studies show that people who have depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other mental disorders have a much higher incidence of sleep difficulties. Between 50-80 percent of psychiatric patients have sleep problems as compared to 10-18 percent of the general population.

Even if you have minor sleep problems, and even if you’re in lockdown and can’t go out much, it’s still important to maintain an adequate sleep routine.

To increase your chances of falling asleep more quickly and staying asleep longer, try to go to bed around the same time each night. Create a restful space to sleep that’s dark, cool, and free of distractions. Once you get into bed, avoid watching TV or checking your phone. Instead, focus on relaxing and getting a good night’s rest.

During the day, get in some physical exercise. Also, be sure you watch what you eat and drink – if caffeine is part of your daily intake, it could significantly impact your ability to sleep. These are just a few tips to help you develop habits to help you sleep better.

Quit “Doomscrolling”

It’s human nature to want to learn what’s going on around you. When you’re depressed, it’s also human nature to seek out information that confirms how you feel.

In modern times, this takes the form of doomscrolling – the act of constantly scrolling through news and social media feeds online or on your phone. It has taken on a new meaning during the pandemic as there is a constant stream of headlines about the virus and what it is doing to communities, economies, and our way of life.

There’s only so much bad news you can take before it begins to have severe consequences for your mental health. And while part of doomscrolling might be to see what good things have happened, by and large, it’s an exercise in reinforcing negative feelings and emotions.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to stop the cycle of doomscrolling and get into a better headspace. The Cleveland Clinic has a great list of things you can do to ditch the doomscrolling.

Connect With Others

As noted earlier, connecting with others, to the extent possible, is a critical part of overcoming your COVID-19 mental health troubles.

Social distancing allows you to safely interact with friends and family while talking on the phone and video chatting gives you the chance to catch up with loved ones in real-time while minimizing the risk of viral transmission.

Many people are using technology to help them engage with others for meaningful events beyond simply talking. Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and other services are great options for having group chats, virtual birthday parties, and even having dinner with one another from a distance.

Get Exercise

Just like sleep and mental health are closely intertwined, so too are physical exercise and mental health.

Studies show that within minutes of exercise, you experience mood-enhancing effects. There are long-lasting effects, too – regular exercise has been shown to decrease the incidence of depression.

For people that are in quarantine, exercise is crucially important. Being stuck at home means less exercise throughout the day from normal daily activities. Adding exercise activities into your daily routine will help you keep in shape and help reduce the risk of a more sedentary lifestyle, like respiratory and circulatory problems.

Mental Health Resources

One of the best things you can do to protect your mental health during the pandemic is to equip yourself with resources to help you cope. 

Below is a list of resources you might find helpful. Note that this is just a partial list – there are many other valuable resources available to help you through the COVID-19 pandemic.

GVC Related Resources: