The Pandemic’s Mental Health Impact on College Students

by Evan Thompson

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Life during a pandemic hasn't been easy for Zachary Davis. He was stunned when COVID-19 forced his school, the Oregon Institute of Technology, to move classes online in March. Months later, he still struggles with mental strain caused by the disruption.

Davis, a 27-year-old Navy veteran who studies applied psychology at Oregon Tech's Portland-Metro campus, hates being on lockdown. He gets stressed and anxious thinking about when the pandemic will end. Stuck at home, he often feels sluggish and unfocused.

"With everything going on in the world and my personal life, I am feeling plenty of negative emotions."

– Zachary Davis, Senior at the Oregon Institute of Technology

"My girlfriend was diagnosed with leukemia this year, so that is just more added stress," Davis said. "With everything going on in the world and my personal life, I am feeling plenty of negative emotions."

The coronavirus has spelled chaos for mental health among college students. Students have had to adapt to online education, deal with death and disruption caused by COVID-19, and adjust to a loss of structure in their lives.

The new school year isn't any less stressful. Despite extensive safety guidelines, colleges and universities have struggled to prevent the coronavirus from spreading on campuses this fall. Infections among students have wreaked havoc on reopening plans, prompting schools to enforce campus lockdowns or delay in-person classes.

Even worse, a few student deaths have been linked to the virus, including a football player at the California University of Pennsylvania and a "super healthy" student at Appalachian State University. A New York Times database has recorded at least 130,000 confirmed cases on college campuses since the beginning of the pandemic, with most cases arising this fall.

Some students are afraid of being infected on campus and worry about leaving their dorms for anything but bare essentials. Davis, who is still waiting for his school to resume face-to-face classes, feels cut off from the outside world.

"Psychology is a life science and it involves real interaction with people," Davis said. "We have Zoom sessions with class, but nothing beats in-person interaction."

COVID-19 Strains Student Mental Health

Davis is not alone. There is evidence that the coronavirus pandemic has had a severe effect on students' mental health over the past six months.

According to a survey by Active Minds in April, 91% of the 2,086 college students surveyed reported that COVID-19 gave them more stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, 81% said the pandemic caused feelings of disappointment and sadness.

Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium surveyed 30,725 undergraduates and 15,346 graduate students at nine public research universities. It found that between May and July, 35% of the undergraduates and 32% of graduate and professional students were depressed, while 39% of both groups had generalized anxiety.

Anxiety and depression were also common among 200 students who participated in a Dartmouth College study in late July. One of the biggest triggers was the sudden switch to remote learning in early spring. At Dartmouth, these changes took place during the end of classes and final exams, which is already a tough time under normal circumstances.

To help flatten the COVID-19 curve, health experts have urged people to stay home and practice social distancing, but social isolation can cause mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and overeating.

Cassandra Enck, a clinician at Magill Counseling Associates in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, said the effects are more harmful if students already struggle with a mental health disorder.

"Some people [who] have anxious or depressive tendencies seem to have increased severity of symptoms. Many of the emotions arose because of the uncertainty and that it could [have] financial, medical, employment, and social implications."

– Cassandra Enck, Clinician at Magill Counseling Associates

Students on campuses face possible exposure to the virus, outbreaks, and a frustrating lack of social distancing by their peers. On the flip side, not being able to socialize takes away an outlet for them to decompress and not think about school.

"Many people find good friendships at college through clubs or other events like that," Enck said. "Those places allow people [who] have difficulty making friendships to feel more connected."

Meanwhile, self-care has been challenging for students stuck at home. Although each student's experience differs, many have been thrown off by not maintaining a routine, working out, or staying connected with friends.

According to Nicole Hadler of the University of Michigan Medical School, keeping students at home rather than on campus can lead to other consequences. Some students have returned to abusive households, limited food resources, or no home at all. Others lost their on-campus or local jobs.

"All the while, college students are experiencing these sudden and unexpected changes while physically separated from their familiar, on-campus support systems," Hadler wrote. "The situation they are living through is stressful and anxiety-provoking, as there is a constant fear of the unknown in addition to a loss of control, making them especially vulnerable to developing mental health concerns."

Dealing With the Longevity of a Pandemic

The end of COVID-19 is nowhere in sight. This fall, cases have been rising fast, and experts predict that winter may see the virus spreading even more.

Davis's mind keeps coming back to the unknowns. It's gloomy for him to think about how long the pandemic will drag out.

"We do not know when the pandemic will be over and when we can go back to our old lives," Davis said. "Knowing this can lead to negative thoughts, stress, and anxiety."

"We do not know when the pandemic will be over and when we can go back to our old lives," Davis said. "Knowing this can lead to negative thoughts, stress, and anxiety."

– Zachary Davis, Senior at the Oregon Institute of Technology

So what does he do to boost his spirits?

"I try and keep some sort of routine to make life somewhat normal," he said. "Luckily, the internet exists, so I can Skype or play video games with friends as a hangout. I have recently started disc golfing, and that gives me a reason to get out of the house."

Indeed, Davis has found many ways to cope with COVID-19. He streams his favorite movies, TV shows, and podcasts with friends. Delivery services like DoorDash and Amazon help him practice social distancing and avoid unnecessary, anxiety-provoking trips in public.

Davis also keeps tabs on how he reacts to the news. While he gets discouraged when he sees other countries handling the pandemic better than the U.S., he's mindful not to let it ruin his mood for long periods. He credits his major for helping him not get overly attached to his emotions.

"Being a psych major lets me see things in a different light," Davis said. "Our psychology program has a focus on behavior analysis, and behavior happens if I am not in class. The quarantine has been a very interesting behavior analysis of others and myself. Though I hate being in quarantine, it is still interesting to see how people act."

How Can You Improve Your Mental Health?

There are a few ways students can to improve mental health during difficult times.

  • Deep Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Calming Music
  • Well-Balanced Diet
  • Limited Alcohol and Caffeine
  • 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Technique
  • Better Sleep

For serious mental health issues, reaching out to a professional is advised.

Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders can interfere with your quality of life. Whether it's a daily or occasional problem, students should consider addressing these types of issues sooner rather than later.

There are many ways to address mental health. Students can try coping strategies while at home or take advantage of virtual resources such as telehealth to receive further support.

A straightforward method to relieve stress is through slow, deep breathing. Meditation, guided imagery, and music can also shift an anxious or stressed mood to a healthier, more positive state of being.

"Practice staying in the present moment," wrote Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk of the Ohio State University Nursing Center. "Worrying will not change or help the situation."

Suppose you're feeling bogged down by a rush of stress, anxiety, or panic. In that case, the Mayo Clinic Health System recommends the "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" technique. The exercise helps you focus on your surroundings rather than what is causing these emotions. It can also help prevent harmful thought patterns.

Maintaining a well-balanced diet, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and getting enough sleep can also improve your mental health, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Although it's easy to lose track of time or stray away from everyday routines during social isolation, it's essential to keep tabs on how you treat your mind and body.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Technique

This technique has you identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Enck encourages students to reach out to a counselor or attend online support groups if they're having trouble dealing with difficult emotions or stressors. Or, they could discuss their feelings with friends or family members.

She's also in favor of using positive self-affirmations to help challenge and overcome self-sabotaging and negative thinking. Harnessing positive-thinking statements are useful in coping with stress and anxiety.

For example, a thought like this may come up: "I might be infected by COVID-19, get really sick, and miss class." Rather than get caught up in what could happen, change the thought to a positive: "I will stay healthy by practicing social distancing and good self-care." Then repeat these types of positive thinking statements throughout the day.

Enck also emphasized something else to keep in mind: The pandemic will not last forever. Although it has dominated our lives since March, a vaccine will eventually spell an end to the mass disruption and death caused by COVID-19.

"These experiences help us learn and grow to being who we are meant to be," she said. "While this is not pleasant, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and things will get better again."

Portrait of Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Patrik Giardino | Getty Images

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