You Are Not Alone

Mental illness and its effects on college students during the COVID-19 pandemic

“No way.”

My friend Elizabeth leaned over from her seat so that she could glance at my phone. The day was March 12, 2020. We were in Madison, Wisconsin visiting a friend during our spring break when I had suddenly received an email from my university that all in-person classes had been suspended until further notice. I shrugged the message off and told myself how this was probably going to be a temporary precautionary measure that would probably last a month at the very most. Little did I know that the email that I received marked the start of a very long, up and down journey called the COVID-19 pandemic.

After saying an abrupt goodbye to my little Griesedieck dorm and essentially my freshman year of college, I drove back home with my car packed with my belongings, wondering about what the future had in store. For the first time in my life, I felt like my plans had been entirely crushed, and what made it worse was knowing that I had no control over what was going on. I quickly began noticing that my friends and peers had equally distressed attitudes towards the future as well. Most of the people I spoke to lost jobs, were struggling financially and were having a difficult time adjusting to this new reality. Everything had been normal, mundane even, and then we were suddenly stripped of our lives as we knew them overnight. That is enough to create life-changing problems for millions of people, which can subsequently cause poor mental health.

With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of mental illness diagnoses skyrocketed. According to the CDC, the pandemic has been associated with mental health challenges, as an increased number of people began to develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. 40 percent of respondents to a CDC survey reported new symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder and 13.3 percent of people admitted to having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. When the survey asked participants if they had seriously considered suicide in the prior 30 days, 10.7 percent responded yes. The statistic was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years, with a staggering 25.5 percent admitting to having considered it. Compared to pre-pandemic life, these statistics almost tripled.

Struggling with mental illness is an extremely difficult and aggressive battle, but being a college student adds onto the intensity of this challenge. When you are at a stage of your life during which you are learning to be completely independent for the first time, you need to rely entirely on yourself, which many are not used to doing. You are suddenly met with the intense pressure of starting your life from a blank slate after spending the previous eighteen years living in the comfort of your childhood home and having your best friends living less than ten minutes away. For the first time in your life, you are met with the immense responsibility of deciding which career path will satisfy you for the rest of your life. You will then need to step out of your comfort zone to make an entirely new group of friends, find new hobbies and interests and learn how to balance these things while having a heavy academic workload. Like it or not, the process will be hard. On top of these challenges, today’s students also face high debt and fewer job opportunities after graduation. These added obstacles can lead to serious depressive and anxious episodes in college students. Students who struggle with mental health problems are at a greater risk of developing problems such as substance abuse, making them more likely to binge drink, smoke and participate in unsafe sexual behaviors to help themselves cope. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged from 15-34. In the 18-25 age group category, 8.3 percent of individuals have seriously considered suicide (pre-pandemic). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the college experience a new meaning. Students can no longer attend meet-and-greets, or attend every class in-person, or go out to large gatherings on weekends to get to know one another. This can lead to a delay in making friends, and as a result, creating a stable support network at school. Classes are also mostly remote, and because of this, students are often confined to their dorm or apartment for days. This can lead to serious feelings of isolation and loneliness, both of which can trigger feelings of severe depression and anxiety. COVID-19 has made mental health problems skyrocket because human beings are naturally social creatures. We crave human interaction and we seek support from our friends and family during difficult times. When that support is stripped away from us, life is miserable. One of the most important things that a person suffering from mental illness needs is constant reminders and affirmations that they are not alone, and that they are loved and cared for. It is incredibly difficult to grasp these concepts when it has been months since you had last seen your best friends in person. Even if a student decides to reach out to get some help, SLU counselors are often overbooked, and students only get a limited number of sessions per year. If we want to see the future of our society thrive, we need to invest in the health and well-being of our students. We cannot put the pressure on our students to balance all of these stressful factors in the midst of a global pandemic and expect them not to burn out. These are trying times for everyone, and the absolute least we can do for one another is to be supportive. Life always feels easier when you know someone has your back.