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Mental Health

Mental Health of Students Amidst a Pandemic

Isolation, illness, and tragedy have been the hallmarks of the past year and a half. Since the pandemic began, these three things have defined our lives and they will likely leave a stain on the world for generations to come. 

Students, in particular, have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Although children in elementary and middle schools have certainly been affected, studies have shown that high school and college-age students have felt the greatest strain on their mental health due to COVID-19.

According to Anne Dennon, a senior writer with BestColleges, polling has shown recent increases in mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety, within university students. In addition, research from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and UCSD has found that “students’ risk of clinical depression doubled since the start of the pandemic.” Furthermore, “in a Boston University study of 33,000 undergraduates, 83% said worsened mental health had negatively impacted their academics.” An ActiveMinds report found that 20% of college students surveyed said that their mental health had significantly worsened under COVID-19, and 80% had experienced some negative impact on their mental health. 38% of all students said that trying to focus on studies or schoolwork was most stressful, and 74% of students reported that maintaining routine was extremely challenging throughout the pandemic. Moreover, a CDC report from the fall of 2020 found that out of 5,400 people, 25% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 had contemplated suicide in the previous 30 days. 

It is clear that students are suffering, but what, exactly, is causing these consequences? 

Uncertainty, changed routines, sleep problems, fears of getting the virus, the loss of loved ones, concerns about the future, trauma, and grief are just some of the issues currently plaguing young adults. Furthermore, humans are social beings and long-term isolation has drastic implications on mental health: being alone can increase the risk for developing mental illness, and for those already struggling, a lack of socializing can worsen their condition. Thus, for students and non-students alike, the sudden solitude of quarantine was likely quite jarring. 

Plus, for some students who had been away at college, moving back home over the course of the pandemic also proved challenging, particularly for those with an unsafe domestic environment. According to Nih.gov., “an increase in domestic violence and abuse during this pandemic further exposes adolescents to risks of developing mental health problems.” Today’s economic state has also had an impact on the mental health of both adolescents and adults: job cuts have put an additional strain on parents and children, forcing them to look for employment elsewhere and/or make major financial changes. 

In an article from February of 2021, author Alison Abott outlined data from researchers studying the impacts of the pandemic on mental health. Although 11% of adults in the UK reported symptoms of depression or anxiety before the pandemic, that figure skyrocketed to 42% by December of 2020 (Nature.com).

Along with anxiety and depression, mental illnesses such as eating disorders have also been exacerbated by the pandemic. In 2020, the number of patients admitted to the Perth Children’s Hospital for anorexia nervosa more than doubled compared to the previous year (BMJ Journals). Even more startling to note is that this figure does not include those who were not hospitalized, nor those diagnosed with other, non-anorexia eating disorders. 

To account for this rise, contributors of the medical article entitled “Outbreak of Anorexia Nervosa Admissions During the COVID-19 Pandemic” hypothesize that, “a combination of social isolation and school closures has disconnected patients from protective factors. The reduction of extracurricular activities, school routines, and peer relationships have created room for eating disorder cognitions to intensify without the usual distractions. Many children with AN have comorbid mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which may be exacerbated by the increased focus on hand hygiene and fear of contracting COVID-19.”

Not only are young people and those already impacted by mental illness disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s toll on mental health, but people of lower socioeconomic statuses, people of color, and other minorities are also more at risk for developing mental illness as a result of the pandemic. 

We can point to a number of explanations for why certain groups have been more seriously impacted by COVID-19 (specifically in relation to mental health): for instance, younger people have a greater need for social interaction than the older population; job losses have made it even more difficult for impoverished people to continue on with daily life; and, compared to white people, Black and Latinx Americans are facing far higher rates of economic hardships. In fact, a survey from the CommonWealthFund found that “more than half of Latino and nearly half of Black survey respondents said they have struggled economically, and were unable to pay for basic necessities, or used up all their savings or borrowed money—a substantially greater proportion than the 21 percent of white respondents who reported the same.”

Although the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the psyche are already largely apparent, it is likely that the trauma it has caused will continue to affect individuals in the future. Trauma often is not fully felt until years after such an event occurs, and with the pandemic being on such a large scale, it is plausible that we will continue to feel the mental strain for years to come. 

The future of mental health may seem bleak, but there are steps we can take to keep each other safe, happy, and healthy. At Barnard, telehealth appointments are available at the Rosemary Furman Counseling Office from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. In addition, Barnard’s Counseling Center website is equipped with numerous resources to aid students in these stressful times. Ways to cope with stress (including CDC-recommended methods) are linked on the site, as are apps for mental health and self-care, numbers for crisis lines, and contact information for group support. 

The Furman Counseling office at Barnard College seems adept in helping its students with their mental health, but what about us? As classmates, friends, and lab partners, what can we do?

  1. Watch for warning signs: a decrease in motivation, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, and voluntary self-isolation may indicate a bigger problem. 
  2. Talk it out: just being available to talk to those around you can help to relieve some of their stress and anxiety. 
  3. Take time for yourself: understand that you may need more rest, and make sure to take breaks when necessary. Learn to be kind to yourself, and practice self-forgiveness. Unwind by practicing yoga or meditation, reading a book, or journaling. In addition, reach out to your loved ones and connect with those around you. Lastly, make sure to take care of yourself by getting sufficient sleep, moving your body in ways that feel good, and fueling properly. 
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Alice Rodi

Columbia Barnard '25

From Lyme, New Hampshire, Alice is a first year at Barnard College hoping to study linguistics and anthropology. She loves reading, spending time outdoors, cooking, petting dogs, and, of course, writing!
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