Have you been experiencing a lot of anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you find that your sleeping and eating routines are too indulgent or just completely out of whack? Are you increasing drug and alcohol use to cope with excess stress or extreme boredom?
You’re not alone. These are some of the most common ways people are coping with the coronavirus outbreak and stay-at-home orders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This situation is having a tremendous impact on our lives and how we function as a society, with so many of our usual daily in-person interactions shifting online. However, we cannot let the pandemic and its uncertainty consume our thoughts and cause us to have a lower quality of life. During times of great structural change, taking care of your mental health is crucial for remaining productive and successful in light of unforeseen obstacles.
As college students, we are particularly affected by this crisis. Anyone ages 17 to 24 in the United States who can be claimed as a dependent on a parent’s tax return (regardless of whether or not they have actually been claimed) are ineligible to receive the $1,200 stimulus check, the standard amount an independent individual is awarded through the two trillion dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Parents are ineligible to receive the $500 bonus for dependents in this age group as well. Although students may still be able to receive some aid, most come from families that have been significantly financially affected by coronavirus and are not making the same amount of money they would have from their lost jobs. Not to mention that some of us have lost loved ones to the virus itself.
Aside from these dire circumstances affecting our mental health, college students have already shown a steady increase in anxiety, depression and suicide in recent years. Students have reported anxiety and stress as the two most common reasons for their academic performance being negatively affected. The main causes in this prevalence of anxiety are the increasing competitiveness on college campuses, from admissions to inside the classroom, and the impossible academic workload we face. When students took the 2018 American College Health Association (ACHA) survey, approximately 50% of them disclosed feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by everything they needed to manage in the two weeks before.
Depression is also a serious issue. According to Cigna, a global health service organization, people in our age group (Gen Z) have higher levels of loneliness than any other generation, dubbing us as “the loneliest generation.” Some studies have suggested that the internet and social media are large contributors to this phenomenon. Although we are extremely connected through technology, it is not always in healthy ways.
We are exposed to so much over the internet. Cyberbullying is occurring at higher rates than ever before, and social media gives us a narrowed view into people’s lives, where individuals only show their best selves, often leaving us feeling inadequate in comparison. Additionally, prior to the outbreak, college students were already having less face-to-face interactions and friendships, the main combatants of loneliness.
We cannot let the pandemic and its uncertainty consume our thoughts and cause us to have a lower quality of life.
This struggle to interact with others in-person and form friendships has led many college freshmen to feel like they do not belong at their school and be extremely lonely in an entirely new place. Although work is being done to combat this lacking sense of community on campuses, this freshman loneliness still manifests itself into additional mental health issues in these students as each school year passes.
To make matters worse, university courses have shifted to online, a completely new and further isolated learning experience that usually requires even more work than in-person classes. Effortless face-to-face interactions with professors and TAs now require careful consideration as we articulate ourselves through email, and attendance needs to be proven through assignments rather than just showing up. Many students are also struggling with a lack of motivation, the ability to learn online only and not knowing how to properly manage their schoolwork. Safe to say, online courses require a very different skill set and even more self-discipline.
College students already tend to hold themselves to extremely high standards. While this helped us get to where we are, striving for perfection is not always to our benefit. We have no separation of work and leisure, since we have schoolwork that continuously follows us home (even more so now). This makes us feel extremely guilty whenever we procrastinate or even do something enjoyable for ourselves, because all we can think about is how we wasted time that should have been spent studying or doing homework.
Remember that it is okay to waste time, especially if it is spent making you happy. Your happiness and loving yourself should always be top priority, as they are crucial in living a satisfying life. Understand that humans are, by definition, not perfect. Some are finding it incredibly hard to even take care of themselves right now or get through each day. From underlying anxiety to sheer misery, all of your feelings about the crisis are completely understandable and valid. Try to forgive and take it easy on yourself. Relax.
A large factor in our anxiety about the pandemic is uncertainty. We do not truly know when there will be a vaccine or cure for coronavirus, or when social distancing will finally be over. Are we all going to be wearing masks on campus when we return? Is the economy going to be ruined right at the time we graduate and need to look for a job? Are we going to continue replacing face-to-face interactions with online ones, and what effect is that going to have, socially and psychologically? These questions have speculative answers at best, but many experts believe that there will be both good and bad effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remember that the generations before us have had to face hardships too — from wars to recessions to other disease outbreaks. Most were able to survive these situations and often came out more knowledgeable (and sometimes even better) on the other side. In light of everything that college students go through now, and given that we are also well-adapted to technology, I believe that we are more than well-equipped and mentally strong enough to get through this. Whatever the future brings, we can take it.
If you want more information about how you can improve your mental health during quarantine, please check out this additional guide I wrote.
Marina Jones is an advocate for normalizing mental health issues and finding ways to help people combat them, especially during times of international crisis.