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Revisiting COVID-19’s Effects on a College Student’s Mental Health

Date: July 14, 2020Author: Katie Newman
Revisiting COVID-19’s Effects on a College Student’s Mental Health

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t thought much about the blog post that I’d written for MHAEM at the end of March. When I reread it, I saw that I’d addressed some things that had truly proven to be legitimate concerns. I didn’t have my favorite cafe to study in when I needed a break from the oppressive silences of the library study rooms. I didn’t have the prospect of hanging out with my school friends at night to motivate me to do work during the day. And quarantine took a toll on my mental health. When the 10-week quarter started at the beginning of April, I felt like I’d been hit with a truckload of responsibility. Coming off of two weeks of a spring break during which I’d done a lot of feeling sorry for myself and absolutely no school work was jarring.

April was a hard month. I was navigating a new academic world, and dealing with the aftermath of leaving so much behind in Washington State, where I’d attended school. I’d begun to feel like I’d created a life for myself there, and it felt like it had been stolen from me. Not only did that make me feel upset and frustrated, I felt guilty for feeling that way. My family was healthy. I was healthy. It felt selfish to wish for anything more than that. But of course I did wish. I’d had plans for spring quarter, to take my first college class in my major, to hike with my friends, to get to know the people I’ll be living with next year, and I lamented the loss of these things tremendously. I tried to tell myself that it was okay, that I deserved to grieve the last part of my freshman year, but watching the state of the world made me feel remorseful about it.

On top of my feelings of confliction and a growing list of online school to-dos, it felt like taking care of myself was a full time job. I was going through a transition period, from school to home, and I know myself well enough at this point to know that times of change have never been easy for me. I’d been through so many in the past year; leaving high school, entering college, and now unexpectedly returning to New Jersey. I felt, and still feel sometimes, trapped in a space of limbo.

I’ve recently taken a step back from my personal thoughts and grievances about the pandemic and it’s allowed me to gain some perspective on what is going on in America. As time and the pandemic have gone on, I’ve observed several states of mind in myself, my friends, and my community as a whole. First there was panic, in knowing that we had to stay inside and go to college online and home school our children and quarantine ourselves from our loved ones. Next there was bargaining. Okay, we know that our lives will be different from here on out. How do we deal with this without feeling like our world is falling apart? This is when people started baking a lot of bread. Following that stage was despair, where people stopped baking bread and started reading more news. Social distancing laws stayed in place and were enforced, and people felt generally hopeless about the future of our country. Now I think we are somewhere called the willful ignorance stage. In the North East, we have seen a decrease in our number of cases (thanks to social distancing, mask wearing, and staying at home) which has led us to believe that the virus is losing momentum, when in reality, we have just been smarter about handling it. We’re coming out of our brief period of quarantine and declaring the pandemic over, simply because we don’t feel like dealing with it anymore.

I, like so many other people, am guilty of believing that life is slowly returning to normal. I’ve expanded my social bubble to my group of close friends, I have planned, and am still planning to return to college in the fall, and I’m not as scared about getting takeout or grocery shopping. It does feel like we are inching towards normalcy, but for all the wrong reasons. Our country is opening up not because it is safe to do so, but because people are bored being inside. Of course, there are some legitimate reasons for beginning to re-open the country, but these re-openings will only lead to a second spike if they aren’t handled properly.

Last week I had a firsthand experience with this improper handling of re-opening procedures. For the past few weeks, my friends and I have been visiting the Jersey shore. We’ve been going to Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, where there was a fair amount of people but if we avoided the boardwalks and stayed towards the back of the beach, we could safely socially distance. On Friday, we decided we wanted a change of scene. One of my friends told me and another friend that Long Branch beach, about 20 minutes north of Asbury, had unlimited beach passes. This was appealing, and it didn’t occur to us that unlimited passes on a sunny Friday in late June could be a red flag. We bought our passes Thursday night and planned to leave the next morning.

As we headed south on the Garden State Parkway, we started to hit more traffic than I’d ever seen on the highway this summer. We eyed each other doubtfully, but decided to stick it out. Arriving at the boardwalk made us regret our decision to make the trip at all. Virtually every shop and restaurant on the ritzy boardwalk was open with a line out the door- a line full of people with neither masks nor any social distance between them. Warily we walked towards the edge of the beach. It seemed that the entire state had gotten the memo about unlimited beach passes, hopped in their cars, and made a beeline to that exact square mile of Long Branch. We stared wide-eyed at the unmasked families, complete with elderly people and toddlers, who had laid out their towels and umbrellas, allowing no more than two feet between them and the next group on the sand. The police officers who lined the boardwalk weren’t wearing masks or enforcing any social distancing rules.

The measly $6.50 beach pass and however much our gas and time was worth, we decided, wasn’t worth getting sick over. We turned around.

I’d seen photos of crowded beaches and restaurants in Florida, Georgia, Texas, all the states that we Northerners had scoffed at, saying that they were re-opening too quickly and recklessly. But in my own state, my liberal, intelligent, Northern state, I thought we would be better. It was so disheartening to see New Jersey let me down. Being at the Long Branch beach and boardwalk made me certain of a coming resurgence of the virus.

Life isn’t returning to normal, it’s simply not. As much as we’d like to think this isn’t the case, the virus is still here, and it will be for a while. We cannot go on pretending that everything is fine. Social distancing and mask wearing is just as important as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, whether people believe it or not. This is a reminder to others and to myself to be careful. Keeping yourself safe and quarantined can save your life, and others’ lives.

I’m scared, not just because of the impending sickness and death that will come with a second wave, but because I’m leaving New Jersey in August. I’m returning to Washington State and living with new people and taking new classes. There is so much uncertainty not just because I am reentering the life I felt I had created for myself at school, but because I know that I’ll be on my own this time. I won’t have my parents to shelter me or keep me company. I tell myself that accepting this uncertainty is just part of becoming an adult, but I should also tell myself, I think, that it’s going to be frightening and strange. And I hope I can be content with that.

I’d like to end this with a quick note: This is a post from late June/early July. I am writing this with the knowledge and perspectives that I have compiled from my experience thus far. If I’ve learned anything throughout this pandemic, it’s that change is bound to happen. So many colleges and universities have made announcements about their intentions for returning to school, only to change them a week later. So this is my truth as of July 8, 2020. I look forward to checking back in a few months, when our world will undoubtedly be different, and with any luck, a bit more hopeful.