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'Uncertainty and loss': The impact of COVID-19 on student mental health

April 16, 2020

For professional and public writing sophomore Charlotte Bachelor, being quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant more than just isolation. 

Bachelor said she had already suffered from mental health issues. Now, with chronic health issues of her own, she is worried for the future in a time where uncertainty has taken the reins.

“That’s been the biggest, most stressful part, Bachelor said. “You don’t know when this is going to get better.”

Isolation and grief

With schools and universities closed nationwide and executive orders calling for people to stay home, many students have found themselves struggling with mental health in ways they hadn’t before.

According to the American Psychological Association, a lack of social connection heightens health risks, creating an effect similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder. 

Bachelor lived in Holmes Hall at Michigan State where she said she had a close-knit group of friends around her every day. They would get dinner, study and hang out often. Now, they’re stuck at home, catching up virtually via FaceTime and Zoom to stay in touch with one another on a daily basis.

She is also coping with grief and loss. 

Bachelor lost her grandfather to COVID-19, unable to visit him when he was sick. She’s made the transition to life behind a screen with no indication of when this unprecedented situation will end.

“My professors have been very lenient. Some of them have had pass/fail policies before the university even came out,” Bachelor said. “So, I’m not so much concerned about my grades, it’s just (with) everything else going on, it becomes very hard to focus on school work.”

During this time, Bachelor said MSU’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, have been a huge resource for her during a time of struggle.

CAPS offers remote counseling to any MSU student as needed. With a crisis hotline available 24 hours a day, students may call at any time to receive assistance from a crisis counselor over the phone.

Mental health during a crisis

On April 13, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced a peer-run “warmline” to aid those with mental health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. This will operate seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. and can be reached at 888-PEER-753.

National data shows that many students are already struggling with anxiety and depression, said CAPS Director Mark Patishnock. When we self-isolate, he said, it’s hard not to see that turn into an emotional or personal isolation as well.

“I think a lot of students are kind of grieving,” Patishnock said. “They’re grieving and they’re trying to respond to the loss of, essentially, normalcy and losing the common, everyday connections that we have with each other through classes and spending time with friends — just being amongst other people.”

With graduation commencement ceremonies up in the air, he said the loss of such anticipated events plays a role in how students might be feeling. 

“There’s a reason why people spend a whole day sitting and waiting at Breslin (Center) and other places to walk across that stage for a mere few seconds, because there is something about closure,” Patishnock said. “There is something about a finale of some physical environment and in-person experience where it feels like it closes a chapter.”

Patishnock said students who have never registered with CAPS can go to their website and complete a survey outlining the kind of services they might be looking for. A CAPS counselor will then reach out to them for a phone consultation where they may address how they are doing and what their needs might be.

College student anxieties

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Kaitlyn Bowen, an environmental studies and sustainability junior, said the stress of having the semester end so early has hit her hard.

She had to move back home with a continued responsibility for paying rent at her off-campus apartment. 

“I was out of a job. I worked at Wharton Center, so all the shows and stuff closed so I didn’t have any more income,” Bowen said. “I definitely know it has been a huge, huge stressor for not just me, but my roommate and all of my friends ... that live in off-campus apartments.”

With the closure of gyms, Bowen said she has noticed her body image has taken a huge toll as well. 

“It’s affected me in ways I never thought it was going to,” Bowen said.

To cope, Bowen said she and her friends have tried to host weekly virtual game nights to keep in touch. Further, she said the ability to create somewhat of a schedule has helped her get by.

Education junior Neha Chellury, who has been in and out of counseling since the end of last semester,  said she’s noticed this quarantine period having somewhat of a positive impact on her mental health. 

Chellury said leaving campus and being with her family has made her feel better as a whole, though she knows not everyone shares the same luxury. The stay-at-home order has made her family closer through everyday interaction, she said.

“I was struggling with bad thoughts ...and I feel like those thoughts were worse when I was at school for some reason,” Chellury said. “Now that I’m at home, I feel like there’s just less stress. Just this whole idea (that) I don’t have to go anywhere, and I can just get up every day and have autonomy over my own things.”

Separated from home

For international students at MSU, with many unable to return to their home countries, they are left on campus uncertain and anxious about their futures. 

Shalvi Save, a mechanical engineering senior from India, said her summer internship was canceled, so she’s stuck waiting to see what is going to happen. With her work closed, she is out of a job she needs to be able to pay for food, rent and summer classes and has gone back to relying on her parents for the first time since her freshman year.

Save said the separation has caused her to worry for the safety of her family back home, while she is left in the dark as to when she may be able to return.

Graduating international students, she said, need to apply for another visa in order to stay in the country. With many jobs halting their hiring processes and international travel remaining banned, Save said these students will be left with nowhere else to go.

“I know a lot of international students who are supposed to be graduating this summer and they cannot go back home,” Save said. “They need to apply for these visa-related documents … and basically, once you get those documents, if you don’t get a job within like 90 days, you have to leave the country.”

Moving forward, in a time of tremendous change, uncertainty and anxiety, Patishnock said students should know they are not alone in their feelings. 

“We all share in the sense of uncertainty and loss. Some of us know people who are either being impacted directly or indirectly by this,” Patishnock said. “Just have compassion. Know that we truly are all in this together and that there will be a time when this ends.”

CAPS can be reached at 517-355-8270 for students looking to speak with a crisis counselor. 

Editor’s note: Charlotte Bachelor worked at The State News in fall 2018.


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