Written by: Tazrean Hossain
Graphic credit: The Joshua Group
It’s October 21. How have we made it this far? Amongst a pandemic, an intense election season, racial tensions, and irreparable damage to the climate, American students have survived. This school year has been especially challenging for our mental health, as we navigate the normal worries of starting school again amongst the new obstacles that have arisen as a result of everything happening in the world.
So how have schools tried to help? Each institution has created a plan, categorized into these three main modes of learning: remote, in-person with social distancing, and a hybrid of those two options. There are variations of these processes to make it the safest for the community: decreasing the number of students on school grounds, letting students decide if they want to be remote or in-person, and changing the school schedule. For instance, the Chapin School, where I went to high school, typically runs on a 6-day cycle. This year, they’ve changed the schedule to 5 days and created “minimesters” to help with their hybrid model. At Wellesley, where I attend college now, our typical fall and spring semester system has been divided into 4 seven-week terms, to help students in case we are sent home early.
These changes have troubling implications for the academic and social experience of students, particularly high school and college students. With in-person, socially distanced classes, discussion and collaboration feel impossible. In one of my first classes this year, we tried to talk to the person sitting “next” to us. Yelling six feet across the room to someone I barely knew, with masks on, made the task awkward. There isn’t a way to naturally befriend people in class. You can’t borrow a pen from the person sitting next to you. And if you’re on Zoom, you definitely can’t walk out of class with someone new and strike up a conversation. This inability to connect is detrimental to our mental health, as school often serves as a way to make friends and find connections you wouldn’t have otherwise.
In the spring of my senior year, my motivation was already slipping; Zoom made it worse. I was always tempted to be on my phone during class, to turn the camera off and multitask, and to zone out because no one would notice. I became increasingly distracted and dealt with Zoom fatigue, but the comfort of knowing my grades didn’t matter left me unmotivated to fix the issues I had with virtual learning. Furthermore, I felt I was in a temporary situation. At the time, we believed this would all be gone by the fall, and this moment in our education would just be those three months when we didn’t really go to school. Now, students like me who struggled with Zoom are forced to continue, unprepared in many ways. Though many schools switched to a pass/fail system for the spring, we are expected now to adjust accordingly because we have some familiarity with virtual learning. Familiarity, unfortunately, does not guarantee success.
For me, my altered academic schedule has added new stress to an already unfamiliar situation. Due to our new term system, academics are far more intense now. We are taking classes that would typically last a semester for only half the time and it’s easy to fall behind. Jamie Vera, a current sophomore at Chapin, explains the emotional impact the minimester system is having on students: “…so many people are struggling with losing family members or friends, having to watch their loved ones or themselves struggle with mental health, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and relapse because of how isolated they feel…the minimesters end up giving us a lot of homework and assessments that people don’t have the time, energy, or stability for.”
Perhaps the biggest blow to our mental health is the inability to make and sustain friendships. Many schools have decreased the number of students on campus, altering the school’s social life drastically. People may not end up with their friends, either because they’re in different grades, have last names in a different part of the alphabet, or decided to study remotely. Many students have to rebuild a social life they had already created in prior years. Navigating virtual friendships was challenging enough during quarantine, but the sentiment at the time was that it was all temporary. But as we’ve all had to come to terms with by now, our current state is indefinite, and thus, the new ways we find to socialize will have to be sustainable and enjoyable. It’s important to try to make intentional time outside of class for the people you care about because the day-to-day interactions one would have had in-person aren’t available anymore.
For new students, it’s even more stressful. As a freshman in college, wearing masks and being six feet apart inhibits so many of the interactions I would have normally had by now. Being in-person yet with all these guidelines, sometimes it feels easier to just stay in your dorm when making these connections can feel so daunting. For remote students, it’s impossible to separate your home life from your school life, which can be particularly burdensome when those two things are different and perhaps polarizing.
Extracurriculars, a way that many high school and college students find community, have taken on new, daunting forms. Monterey Mecham, a current first-year at Wellesley, talks about how joining the Shakespeare Society was one of the primary reasons she chose to attend Wellesley. “They aren’t taking new members and a lot of orgs aren’t advertising… so it’s hard to find things to get involved in.” Because less than half of the student body is on campus, it’s difficult to advertise clubs, especially with time zone conflicts and the awkwardness of forming connections online. Even when students can join organizations, the experience is far from what they expected. A first-year in college describes her experience with getting involved on campus: “Typically I’d be able to meet people during org meetings or do things like walk or talk back to the dorm with them, but my org meetings consist of staring at black screens on mute as I log onto a zoom call from my room. I love to sing, music has always been a stress outlet for me, but many organizations aren’t holding auditions or are limiting numbers of people they take in for auditions due to COVID reasons.” The inability to pursue our passions the way we want to is equally draining, as it not only inhibits our social life but our self-expression.
Our institutions’ approaches to COVID-19, while varying in safety guidelines and resources available, seems to have a similar impact: students are struggling with physical and emotional wellness, now more than ever. As one college student puts it, “I wish [redacted] would stop running the college entirely like a business and instead consider the mental health of their students in mind.”
A generation characterized by our destigmatization of mental health issues, it’s imperative that we not only continue the conversation but propose actions we can take to help. If and when possible, find mental health support outside of your home. You can see what your school offers, or look at local hotlines, text services, and more. (Some options are linked below.) Though it’s easier said than done, we have to challenge ourselves to socialize in new ways. Make small goals, like choosing to call at least one friend or spending extra time in one class this week. Recognize that there won’t be a perfect routine or system you’ll come up with, but you can strive to make each day a little better.
Increased access to technology makes it easy to fall into Zoom fatigue, information overload, and poor time management skills. The ease of joining a Zoom allows you to participate in more, but also be so much more exhausted by what you’re doing. Checking the news and social media frequently can create information overload, where you’re absorbing more than you can fully process. Recognize these symptoms within yourself, and attempt new ways to address it. It can be choosing not to read that article today, or skipping that Zoom tomorrow.
In the spring, my coping mechanisms with virtual learning were certainly not as sustainable. I didn’t imagine I would be writing this right now with a mask on, six feet apart from my friend in the building where I get tested twice a week. I wasn’t prepared then, but I’m learning to be prepared now. We don’t know what will happen next–a thought that can be both comforting and frightening. Either way, we’re not alone in our struggle.
Give yourself a break. It’s a pandemic.
Mental Health Resources:
- – National Helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Administration: 1-800-662-4357
- 24/7, 365 days a week
- – Treatment Referral Helpline from SAMHSA: 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)
- Monday-Friday, 8 am-8 pm ET
- – Mental Health America Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- – Mental Health America Text Service: Text MHA To 741741
- – National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Monday-Friday, 10 am-6 pm ET
- – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- – National Institute of Mental Health: (866) 615-6464 and live online chat
- Monday-Friday, 8:30 am-5 pm ET
- – Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741