Coping as a college student during a pandemic

March 23, 2021

Tamsin Copans

How are today’s students coping in these unprecedented times

We are living in the craziest of times. It’s now February 2021, and we are a full year into a worldwide pandemic that has already changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a year ago. I do not need to list different aspects and sectors that have been markedly affected. International news agencies have left no stone unturned in keeping many of us enthralled on a daily basis with the ever-evolving crisis. Given my personal interest and position as a university student counselor, the huge impact that the pandemic has had on college and university students is completely daunting. I wonder how this already-vulnerable sector is now coping with additional disruption to their lives and I see the awareness of mental health issues becoming more prominent day by day.

Going a little back to the party time

When I think back to my own student days, a huge smile starts to spread across my face. Not because I loved to study — not everyone may have had the same experience that I had. My smile is because I realize how amazing my life actually was. There were times when I was overwhelmed, unsure and suffering from the classic 20-something existential crisis, but I had a true sense of freedom and purpose. I was immediately empowered by not having to report back to my parents on the where, when, how, and why. All decisions were mine, whether they were right or wrong.

University was a great stepping stone to meet like-minded people, and to connect with different cultures, interest groups, and countries. A time of choosing to study subjects that were a passion and of saying goodbye to compulsory topics that held little or no interest value. It really was a time to be the authentic, mature young adult that students learn to visualize themselves as, and to be no longer misunderstood. Students had an opportunity to write their own life path on their own terms, in their own way, and have great fun doing it.

College is the perfect time to explore new opportunities, cultivate new hobbies, and try new things. Schools create a welcoming and safe space for this by hosting concerts, dances, sports-related events, parties, cultural groups, encouraging self-expression, and more.

Don’t forget that prior to this world pandemic a major drawcard to the university years was the world-infamous social gatherings, simply put — the party culture. This essential part of student life is almost seen as a rite of passage. It’s the flip side of the coin; the really fun part, where serious stuff does not feature. There is no student group around the world that does not engage in, or adhere to, some sort of organization of party events that involves music, dance, and some drinks. To those living in the dark, I will refrain from recording the rest. Let it just be said that party culture on the university or college campus is so embracing and sometimes may be, quite frankly, just super embarrassing.

The best party universities are extensively written about, ranked and featured on the internet, and have become a magnet for today’s students. So much so that there are websites which actually prioritize colleges for their party status. College is the perfect time to explore new opportunities, cultivate new hobbies, and try new things. Schools create a welcoming and safe space for this by hosting concerts, dances, sports-related events, parties, cultural groups, encouraging self-expression, and more. Sounds pretty tame but for many it is a freedom protest all on its own.

COVID19 consequences

The question we are asking here is why has student culture been so explosively affected by the COVID19 pandemic? And why is wellness in mental health being particularly ravaged in this group of young people?

Isolation

The consequences of COVID19 have impacted this youth sector at a time when their lives are already in a state of disruption. Instead of mixing socially on a daily basis for academic lectures, robust debate, and social interactions, our youth are spending their time social-distancing, studying alone, and sitting in isolation. Late-teens and early 20-somethings naturally do not want to have enforced alone time, and this impacts on the fact that the importance of social contact has long been recognized as a fundamental need of human beings (Gilmartin et al., 2013).

Forced alone time is probably the furthest thing from any student’s mind. Consider the effects of what we know about isolation and loneliness to illustrate how devastating this scenario can be. Humans do not survive well in isolation. It is universally accepted that humans are a social species, with the mental and physical need to be surrounded by others. We need the intellectual and emotional stimulation that companionship brings to stay mentally healthy and well-rounded.

Research has shown that the results of contact deprivation can be catastrophic at all stages of life. From the newborn baby that naturally craves nurturing from a parent’s touch, smell, and voice, to the enforced isolation of prisoners of war and others kept in solitary confinement. The effect on the mentally ill who, in America’s not-so-distant past, were isolated in asylums through lack of knowledge and understanding of their illness, was devastating.

The mental and physical results of the lack of human connection have been constantly proven and documented. For example, there are many records of prisoners of war who were kept in extreme isolation as a form of torture to break down resistance to perceived enemies. Armed forces around the world actually train certain members of their forces to cope with this kind of scenario should they be captured and find themselves in a compromised situation.

Truth is often stranger than fiction and governments have historically been known to implement these policies in the name of protecting national security. In doing so they have seriously compromised human rights. It really is just like in the movies and this kind of isolation may even result in important changes in the brain, affecting thoughts and emotions. Over time, extreme enforced isolation may even cause physical imbalances that cannot be reversed easily.

Luckily, with access to modern technologies such as Zoom, most of us aren’t completely cut off. Yet, online interactions just aren’t the same as in-person social contact.

Identity

Let’s be honest. For some students the college years were stressful enough before the pandemic with just ploughing through the day and finding out who they actually are and what they really stand for. In a nutshell, this pandemic arrived as some students were already struggling with their own identity, compounded by over-exposure of screen interface time and lack of human face-to-face interaction.

This over-exposure to screen time, typically social media platforms, inhibits the development of social skills, emotional IQ, and interaction with other humans. Keyboard warriors can hide behind anonymity online. There is an abundance of negative interactions, compounded by the presence of information-sounding chambers that seem legitimate but are actually designed to feed insecurities and already-existing bias. Navigating the complexities of truth and misinformation on the internet is no small feat, and in isolation it can get harder.

Emotional regulation – or the process we use to influence which emotions we experience, and when and how we experience and express those emotions – is a challenge at the best of times. The cultivation of healthy emotional regulation requires constant effort, experience, and maturity.

Disruption

Disruption naturally plays havoc with the insecurities of many students. Because of lockdown, these young adults work through their days without any form of structure. They are being taught online by lecturers they may never even have physically met. As a consequence, students surf the net to find out why they have feelings of lack of worth, no commitment, and no direction.

The internet provides the opportunity to self-diagnose why they are feeling depressed or uncomfortable with themselves. Isolation undermines reality-checking. People start living in an often emotionally-charged fantasy world that they have unintentionally created for themselves (Davey, 2020). Many undergraduates often live far away from home without their previous social support structure. There is also huge natural peer pressure, imagined or real, to fit in. The responsibility for who they become and how they behave is now their personal choice and the anxiety they feel is a test of their own maturity. Isolation can wreak havoc on this natural process of becoming.

Therefore, we see a further disruption in an over-abundance of involuntary and voluntary alone time because of the virus. Forced alone time may result in extreme self-analysis with the danger of total self-absorption. The daily structure, which this age bracket formally used as school pupils, gave direction to their lives – but this imposed structure no longer exists.

Faced with the current realities of lockdown and isolation, turbulent emotions are being triggered and governed by circumstance beyond their control. Emotional regulation – or the process we use to influence which emotions we experience, and when and how we experience and express those emotions – is a challenge at the best of times. The cultivation of healthy emotional regulation requires constant effort, experience, and maturity. The ability to efficiently emotionally regulate is protection from being derailed, regardless of external factors. Strength in this ability is a tall ask for young college students already facing multiple challenges that may trigger emotional upheaval.

The internet is not a real doctor

No wonder they turn to the internet to find answers. What students find is psychological classifications that have checklists. You know the ones I am talking about. The ones that ask questions like: do you have these symptoms? Or, do you have a personality disorder? Or, check the box if you are admired by your friends as a born leader, sometimes hinting at the secondary question of: are you a narcissist?

Psychological classification lists like these require professional assessment and not diagnosis by the internet.

Getting the balance right

In normal circumstances, students need to find their own balance between a vibrant social party life, and a focused career path of opportunity that they will base their future on. It is perfectly okay and natural for some to struggle with the temptations that come with new-found freedom. Financial restraints may be a huge concern as the majority of students are often heavily indebted with student loans.

The reality is that this age group, now more than ever, often suffer from a sense of isolation and loneliness including depression, poor eating habits, lack of self-discipline, and even substance abuse. In this mix we now add lockdowns, which in their own right, produce psychological pressure for all humans.

The dichotomy studied and understood by psychologists is that pressure may often be an extremely positive influence. It can encourage students to break through self-limiting beliefs and aid in their personal growth. The negative influences of adding pressure or stress have also been noted. Many undergraduates today are happy to accept that their mental health issues are valid excuses for non-performance and lack of personal motivation. All of this has been exacerbated by the current world crisis of the COVID19 pandemic. Regardless of your stance on that particular debate, the subject matter of mental wellness and health is here to stay. Fostering the skills to positively participate in your own physical and mental wellbeing is vital.

Seeking wellness

So how do we positively participate in our own wellness? It is important to know how the mind and body need to work in sync in the twenty-first century. The original Hierarchy of Human Needs by Abraham Maslow, published in the 1940s, became the bible of mental health. Science has now extended this list to embrace the needs of our modern-day sociological circumstance. The updated and current understanding of the workings of the mind has made mental health a topic of prime importance which needs to be handled with sensitivity and specialized care. Interestingly, more and more students are becoming cognizant of their own mental health needs and wellbeing

The COVID19 pandemic is a unique situation where a humanitarian health crisis of epic proportions has been seen unfolding via the internet with all its devastating and frightening detail.

Getting guidance and some simple tips

What is exciting in our current times is that students are voluntarily seeking specialist counseling, with possible referrals down the line to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Specific life coaching aligned to good nutrition and eating habits, sleep therapy, personal organization, and lifestyle are also seen to add huge value to a well-rounded existence. There are many simple tips and insights that students may find useful to minimize the feelings of isolation and lack of motivation.

One of the most important tricks is to be organized. Plan the week ahead to complete the required amount of academic work and treat each day as ordinary. This means getting up and dressing in the mornings as if you are going to college, whether it is a school day or not. Tidy up your environment so you feel organized and ready to tackle the work and the week ahead. Consider productivity tools to keep yourself on track, such as the Pomodoro Technique or setting up a kanban board.

Nutrition is a contentious subject when you are a student but, as the saying goes, you are what you eat. Turning to junk food is not the answer. Planning your nutrition, taking note of your budget restraints, can make life easier, especially during lockdowns and short trading hours.

Feelings of loneliness and isolation mean different things to different personalities. If you are feeling particularly isolated try committing to a study bubble. They really do work. A study bubble is an exclusive small group of 2 or 3 students who meet regularly to study together. Members may only belong to one study group at a time due to COVID19 health protocols.

There are also small but very impactful things that can be implemented easily into daily life, like being kind to yourself, discovering new at-home hobbies, exercising, helping others, or tending to indoor plants or a garden.

The rules have changed

There is no age group that has not been impacted by this world pandemic. Generational differences undoubtedly bring different issues. Tertiary students are, for a multitude of reasons, at the tipping point of vulnerability regarding mental wellness. There is no guidebook or form of protection for these students to navigate the course of this pandemic on their own. This is simply because there are no real experts out there. Instead, “there is a need for a new package of life routine and elements” (Davey, 2020).

Students are perceived as being naturally physically resilient and exceptionally adaptable, despite their well-documented transient mental insecurities. After all, they are still students. But the rules have changed. The COVID19 pandemic is a unique situation where a humanitarian health crisis of epic proportions has been seen unfolding via the internet with all its devastating and frightening detail. Now, it seems, there are no rules.

Putting it into perspective

Ideally, students should remind themselves of their purpose in being an undergraduate, and why they decided to embark on a college education in the first place. This will help to add perspective back to their lives, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, and improve their sense of wellbeing. It is important to share negative or disruptive feelings with friends, family, psychologists, or even perhaps your goldfish – and to seek help if things start to feel overwhelming. Having these feelings is absolutely fine. Indeed, it is very normal.

What is the key to successfully combating all this anxiety? Perhaps it’s simplicity. Live for the joy of life in the moment. Look positively to the future and the adventure that awaits you. Rather than surfing the internet, take responsibility for your own mental health and well-being, especially during this time. This too will pass.

Davies, B. (2020). Mental Health, Isolation and Lockdowns. Resilience blogsite.

Gilmartin, H., Grota, P.& Sousa, K. (2013). Isolation: A Concept Analysis. Nursing forum. 48. 54-60.

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