BY JULIE MARIE
Pandemic restrictions are taking a substantial toll on the mental health of college and university students. Administrators in higher education need to realize that the mental health challenges faced by students are far more severe than their risk from COVID-19; students need to know that their mental health is important and they do not deserve to be alone.
Like all others, the college where I teach has a process for managing positive COVID-19 cases and contacting those potentially exposed. During the first week of class, a student emailed me to report that her roommate tested positive and that my student had to quarantine as result. She was not allowed in class; this is understandable. However, when I emailed to check in with her 2 weeks later, her response seemed unbelievable.
I knew my student was required to quarantine; however, it turned out that she was required to quarantine twice. Even though she continually tested negative for COVID-19, she was required to quarantine herself for the entire 10 days her roommate was considered an “active” case and then an additional 14 days after that. This means that my young and healthy student, who never tested positive, was under a government and college mandate to quarantine herself for 24 consecutive days.
Though extraordinary, this situation is not unique; college and university pandemic restrictions are more severe than many of us realize. While approximately half of the nation’s colleges and universities have fully or partially opened their campuses for in-person instruction during the pandemic (1), they have done so while imposing severe limitations on the millions of students who have returned. Over the last two months, college campuses throughout the country have required students to:
These restrictions keep students separated and disconnected from their support systems and exacerbate feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety, and shame–issues that lead to an increase in mental illness and even suicide. Students who do not comply with university restrictions are bullied and shamed for their behaviors. Students who do not comply are described as “selfish” or “brazen,” and their behaviors are blamed for the health of whole communities.
“Last night, a large group of first-year students selfishly jeopardized the very thing that so many of you claim to want from Syracuse University…” – J. Michael Haynie, Vice Chancellor Syracuse University. (7)
“Some are brazenly breaking rules…” – Tovia Smith, All Things Considered, NPR (8)
“Unfortunately, too many students have chosen to host or participate in social gatherings that seem to demonstrate a high disregard for the seriousness of this virus and the risk to our entire community,” – UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank (9)
Active Minds, a national non-profit organization with a stated mission of raising awareness about mental health and suicide in young people, indicates pandemic restrictions are exacerbating mental illness symptoms: “For many, having to unexpectedly leave or disengage with our community – even if just for a short time – can be stressful. For others, this pandemic may be exacerbating symptoms of anxiety or other mental illnesses.” The organization published a survey of college students’ mental health in September 2020 where over 75% of respondents reported that their mental health has at least worsened since the pandemic began (10).
When asked in what ways their mental health had been impacted, 88.8% reported “stress or anxiety,” 79.4% “reported disappointment or sadness,” and 77.76% reported “loneliness or isolation.” As expected, when asked what has been the “most stressful,” the top response from students was “feeling disconnected from friends and/or loved ones.” (10).
This data is consistent with an August report from the CDC showing that while 1 in 10 adults had “seriously considered” suicide since the beginning of the pandemic, college-aged adults (18-24 years) reported a much higher rate: 1 in 4 reported they had “seriously considered” suicide. The CDC report specifically states, “Mental health conditions are disproportionately affecting specific populations, especially young adults…” (11).
There are approximately 19 million college students in the U.S. (12). Before pandemic restrictions, college students were already at high risk for developing mental illness (13, 14). The average age of onset for chronic mental illness is mid-teens to early twenties (15), and the second leading cause of death for this age group is suicide (16, 17). In the U.S., approximately 1,100 college students die by suicide each year, while 24,000 attempt suicide each year (19). Feelings of hopelessness, shame, loneliness, isolation, and disconnection from others will exacerbate existing mental illness and bring up new mental health issues (20, 21, 22, 23). A quick observation of college and university websites suggests college leaders are well aware of the increased mental health risk to their student bodies; many have added information to their websites or associated student blogs on tips for managing loneliness (24, 25, 26), and some refer to loneliness among college students as an epidemic (27).
Even when universities acknowledge the mental health issues college students face, the severe pandemic restrictions prevail. Many prominent figures and news outlets have referred to the restrictions as “inconvenient” and “small sacrifices.” University administrators echo this sentiment, calling on students to be altruistic so leaders can gain compliance.
“It’s inconvenient from a societal standpoint…” – Anthony Fauci (28)
“I will urge students to demonstrate their altruism by complying…” – Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University. (30)
The privileged and powerful can suggest that the restrictions are easy for dutiful students, but they are nothing short of major lifestyle changes. It should not surprise us that pandemic restrictions are leading to isolation and social disconnection that will have serious negative mental health consequences for millions of students.
A message to policy makers: To date, there have been a handful of hospitalizations and zero deaths of college students due to COVID-19 (31). However, over the past few decades, psychiatric hospitalizations for college students have risen 300%, and thousands die by suicide each year (14, 32, 19). Pandemic restrictions have targeted a population at low risk for COVID-19 complications and high risk for mental illness, while leaders shame them into compliance and call them names when they fail. That is what bullies do. Students are facing far more serious risks from mental illness than they are from COVID-19. Focus attention where it matters.
A message to college students: Your mental health is no less important than anyone else’s physical health. Mental illness is considered a health issue, treated with medication and counseling. It is treatable, and recovery is possible! You are important, your mental health is important, and you do not deserve to be alone.
Julie Marie holds Masters degrees in Sociology and in Social Work and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and faculty member at a Midwestern college.
**If someone is experiencing an emotional crisis or thoughts of suicide, free, 24/7, confidential services are available.