College students face higher levels of pandemic-related mental illnesses

Written By Nardos Haile, Co-News Editor

One year since the U.S. confirmed its first COVID-19 case, almost 500,000 people have died, millions are unemployed, and rates of depression, anxiety and several other mental illnesses have increased, specifically in young college-aged adults.

In August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study that showed 1 in 4 people between the ages 18-24 had “seriously considered suicide” in the last month. 

Now in the midst of winter, the CDC and other health experts and organizations are worried about how the pandemic has negatively impacted people’s mental health because of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression.

“Many of us who are struggling with anxiety and depression, regarding the pandemic, the way we would understand those emotional struggles would be around isolation and the emotional turmoil of not knowing what’s going to happen and the concerns and fears we all have,” Kurt Kumler, the Director of the Point Park Counseling Center said.

In comparison to pandemic-related depression or sadness, seasonal depression’s “primary cause is the daylight cycle,” Kumler said.

College students, in particular, are an age demographic at risk of higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression due to changing environment, homesickness, a heavy school workload and the formation of new relationships. 

“During the COVID days, students, of course, experience all of that for starting college, but even students who are returning, who are already adjusted to college life from high school, last year they had to readjust to a whole new conception of college,” Kumler said. 

Kylee Kolbicka, freshman biochemistry and french cultures major at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter at Pitt, said she finished the last third of her senior year of high school fully online. 

“And when I got to college at Pitt, and we actually had this routine, I noticed personally for me, I’ve always been a perfectionist, and that’s where all of my anxiety comes from. I noticed that I had more of that perfectionist anxiety with everything being online,” said Kolbicka.

Graham Dore, a senior psychology major at Pitt and leader of NAMI, said regarding students’ mental health during the pandemic and academic year that “a lot of the things that were avoidable become unavoidable.” 

A survey by BestColleges stated that about almost 80% of students had experienced disruptions because of the pandemic. All of those students stated they were facing increased levels of stress impacting their mental health.

“A lot of the things that brought life variety and meaning, excitement and motivation are now no longer available to us. The largest thing is that we don’t have any predictability and any control over any of [the pandemic],” Dore said.

Dore added that the increased use of the internet, screens, and lack of social interactions whilst repeating the pattern every day doesn’t help students’ mental health.

“We are all a bunch of kids still. We need social connection. We need time to check out and do stupid things and have fun. At both ends of our lives, we’re being torn at both ends,” Dore said. “Right now is a time where college students need to chill out more than ever, but this is also the time where college students need to challenge themselves to get their stuff together and perform. It’s a really straining situation.”

With the combination between pandemic-related stress, anxiety, depression, and seasonal depression, these issues may make it harder on an already struggling student or a perfectly well-adjusted student.

“All these things can compound. In unique circumstances, the compounding might feel like for a particular individual like layer upon layer like ‘I feel down in the winter’ ‘I’m isolated with quarantine,’ and maybe another life event happens, but the additive effect is most likely to be seen in terms of an increase in the general number of people who raise their hand to the question ‘are you struggling with feelings of depression and anxiety?’” Kumler said.

Because of the increased levels of stress and anxiety, the students in NAMI have successfully advocated for mental health days at Pitt so students can decompress from academic work and responsibility for one day.

“We helped organize self-care days at Pitt. We basically have these little self-care days where we don’t have any class, the professors and everybody know that they’re not allowed to give homework or anything,” Kolbicka said. “It gives students a chance to destress, which I think is really important, especially when you’re staring at a computer screen all day.”

Dore said that he believes that even though Pitt students have a few self-care days, the accelerated learning environment still enables academic burnout. Academic burnout symptoms are exhaustion, frustration, lack of motivation, and reduced ability in school.

“[Academic] burnout is basically inevitable. I have noticed time and time again throughout this semester all of the fellow student leaders I work with, all of these people experiencing [burnout] in some level or another,” Dore said. “One of the moments where I most noticed it was when we were supposed to take care of ourselves and nobody actually could.”

Overall, Dore said he wants students to try and find small moments of creativity and expression in their online and daily routine.

“The number one thing I would encourage people to do is to try and balance the scales of their lives in creative ways so that every day isn’t just Zoom world, but has other things that make them feel like themselves, that make them feel like their lives are joyful and meaningful,” Dore said.