I said goodbye to my friends last March, completely unaware spring break would be our last taste of freedom for the next year of our lives. This past year has left me, and many other college students, functioning in auto-pilot mode. The process of going through the daily motions of living in this new normal has begun to take a toll on my mental health.
March 16, the day the University of Georgia moved all classes online for the rest of the semester, signified a new reality, and as we reach the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak, its long-term effect on college students’ mental health is becoming more apparent.
While the pandemic has brought on new levels of anxiety and stress for people around the world, it’s important to draw attention to its impact on the college student population in particular.
A recent survey from the United States National Library of Medicine revealed that approximately 71% of college students have experienced increased rates of stress and anxiety due to COVID-19. In August 2020, Governor Kemp declared that Georgia would use around $11.5 million of the funding from the CARES Act to support mental health services within the University System of Georgia.
“The university system and its institutions have a responsibility to address [mental health] and lessen how these challenges impact students,” said USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley.
UGA has put in some effort regarding students’ mental health services, including telehealth counseling options through a 24/7 access line and well-being support programs. However, these services have yet to be broadly advertised on campus despite funding from the USG. Additionally, not all students may have access to these programs due to the pandemic’s financial burdens.
College activities that once seemed so normal, such as attending sporting events, going to the dining hall with friends and studying at the Zell B. Miller Learning Center, were abruptly taken away from us. For the first time, we were thrown out of our normal, busy routines — balancing schoolwork, social events and extracurriculars — into complete lockdown and uncanny isolation.
Prior to COVID-19, only around 35% of college students had taken online courses, according to the education nonprofit Digital Promise. This made it extremely difficult to adjust at first. Meaningful interactions and engagement within the classroom were completely eliminated from the college experience. During the spring 2020 semester, UGA was not part of the 60% of universities across the United States that granted students a pass/fail option for their online courses in order to reduce some of the initial anxiety at the time. Instead, UGA students were expected to quickly adapt to an unfamiliar style of learning under the same grading pressures as before.
In addition to this abrupt change in academic instruction, college students’ lifestyles drastically altered as most on-campus students went from living independently from their parents in a social environment to moving back into their family homes last spring. Even as UGA students returned to campus for the fall 2020 semester, feelings of anxiety and isolation persisted.
While UGA’s social distancing guidelines and on-campus restrictions were necessary for controlling the spread of the virus, reduced learning experience and limited social interactions continued to take a toll on students’ mental health. Many students confronted a new set of obstacles pertaining to group situations. In some cases, relationships between roommates and peers were complicated by those who attended large parties or gatherings and put each other at risk.
It’s safe to say students’ anxiety regarding COVID-19 and related lifestyle changes could be relieved if there was some form of clarity about how everything will end. However, uncertainty is one of the only things to remain consistent throughout the past year. Moving forward, UGA, as well as other colleges across the country, need to better support students’ mental health during these unusual and confusing times.