By Kennedy Mapes
COVID-19 has changed the view of normal life worldwide. College students are among those who have been especially affected in several ways, such as having to adapt to a new learning environment and social norms as well as facing employment uncertainty. It has been quite a difficult transition for some and the consequences of the pandemic are beginning to weigh heavily on their mental health.
When students choose the school they want to continue their education at, the decision is usually based on several different factors, but one of the most common factors is what they believe their overall college experience will be like at that school. This said college experience includes many different aspects of college life, such as knowledgeable and helpful professors, professor to student ratio, student activities, student organizations, sporting events, and the campus’ social life.
A survey completed by ten college students from different schools across West Michigan has shown that there has been a significant change in the mental health of college students since mid-March, the beginning of quarantine and the realization of the severity of the pandemic in the state of Michigan.
When the students were asked about how important social interaction is to the college experience and if their experience has been tainted due to the pandemic, each one explained that having an active social life is one of the most important factors of the college experience. They discussed how it gets students involved and excited about their education as well as how it helps them to create lifelong friendships. They all also agreed that the pandemic has spoiled the experience they were hoping for, resulting in disappointment and deject.
The students were also asked if the lack of social interaction has contributed to any depreciation in their mental health. All students answered that it has affected their mental health in one way or another. Some students said they have experienced more anxiety and stress due to a loss of control as well as having to adapt to a new learning style. Some said they are beginning to feel an influx of sadness due to isolation and not being able to interact with friends or visit family, and other students with pre-existing mental health conditions explained that they feel some of their symptoms heightening due to several things, such as a disruption in their routine, added pressure and stress due to the unexpected learning environment, fear of contracting and spreading the virus, and social isolation.
One student who contracted COVID-19 said that although she tried to be as cautious as possible, she still managed to get the virus. She explained that she is experiencing extreme exhaustion and lack of energy and is having a hard time keeping up with assignments which is adding to her stress. She also expressed that she is feeling disconnected because she had to leave campus to quarantine back home.
When asked how the students were adapting to the virtual classroom, the consensus was split on whether or not it was having any effects on their mental health. Some students said that they preferred online classes as it gave them time to do their assignments as they pleased, while others said that it has been extremely difficult. Those that have had a difficult time adapting, explained that they are beginning to feel a loss of confidence and success as a student due to performing lower than they would under normal circumstances. Some students also stated that the online learning experience doesn’t actually feel like learning. They explained that they are focused more on just completing assignments and turning them in at the right time rather than actually comprehending the information.
Mike Boxer, a case manager at Healthwest, a service center that specializes in providing interprofessional healthcare for those, youth and adult, with behavioral or developmental disabilities and co-occurring substance abuse disorders in Muskegon, Michigan, weighed in on the subject.
“Human beings need social interaction and people are longing for connection right now,” said Boxer. “While I don’t know the specific numbers off the top of my head, we are definitely seeing an increase in feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety because of COVID-19 that have plagued probably every demographic, but certainly that age group because everything their accustomed to–the whole college experience–is being turned upside down.”
Boxer works on a team at Healthwest that not only specializes in behavioral mental health disorders, but also with co-occurring substance abuse disorders as well. He voiced that he believes the feelings college students are facing now could result in an increase in drug use among this demographic.
“I don’t know statistically if the number has increased already, but I would be surprised if it didn’t,” said Boxer.
He then explained that college is an experimental time on it’s own and when you factor in everything that’s going on now, it wouldn’t be unusual for some people to turn to a substance to cope.
In regards to those students who are having a difficult time learning in this new virtual environment, Boxer said that it is normal for students to feel this way and for some to be struggling under these circumstances.
“There is a ton of added stress and pressure because of extra work, adapting to a new learning style, and trying to keep up with assignments, because if it’s anything like what I’ve experienced working from home, it’s created a lot more paperwork,” said Boxer. “But really, I think it mostly has to do with that loss of personal connection. Staring at a computer screen is not the same thing as connecting to your professors and your peers in a real classroom.”
Boxer also urged students who feel they are struggling with feelings of depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns, or substance abuse to reach out to the resources around them. He encouraged students to reach out to their loved ones, counseling centers available on campus, or their county’s community mental health agency.