A college year like no other: Challenges of pandemic impact students in numerous ways

JFCS Counseling

JFCS Counseling can provide telehealth therapy for students facing mental health challenges

By Jill Kozberg, MA, LP • JFCS Counseling Manager

As a mother, aunt, and friend to college students – and spouse of a college professor – I’m hearing first-hand how the pandemic is impacting college students. The impact is multi-faceted; financial, academic, social, emotional, and every combination of these factors.

While many students have been prevented from returning to their campus communities, those who have been able to go, are seeing significant limitations to the “college experience.” From some in-person classes, to quarantines, to 100% distance learning, to lockdowns, the restrictions on students’ movements has been particularly difficult.

Jill Kozberg

Being put on quarantine can be very overwhelming for many students, especially when they are prevented from engaging in their usual coping activities. For example, when students are told they cannot leave their buildings to go for walks, runs, hikes, or bike rides, it significantly curtails their ability to manage anxiety. Some find old, destructive habits have been triggered. All of this also has a negative impact on students’ abilities to concentrate and focus on school work.

Adjusting to distance learning has many challenges. Students are finding they are unable to create classroom communities, either due to asynchronous learning, or to a lack of interaction, as all classmates have their video cameras off during class. This leads to increased isolation and a feeling they need to self-teach themselves very challenging material. As a result, they feel they are having to learn in a vacuum.

Students may spend 12 hours a day on screens, feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and stuck indoors. One undergraduate student commented that “there is never NOT work to do; everything feels like homework, including watching lectures online.” With the lack of structure, it’s easy to get the days confused and miss classes and deadlines. The days begin to blur together.

It’s perfectly normal to start the school year with some anxiety, even for experienced college students, but this year that anxiety is not limited to finding friends, missing home, managing finances and managing classes. This year students are dealing with the extra anxiety due to the ever-present threat of COVID-19. Students are trying to make decisions, some of which may potentially put them at risk for the virus. Some are wondering whether they should try to get the virus just to get it over with. Others are grappling with the warnings coming from their colleges and universities, families, and medical communities. Many have already had to face the virus head on, away from family and friends, often having to temporarily move to an isolation facility for COVID-positive students. Even for those for whom the virus was mild, having to face it, and the unknown, alone can have a far-reaching impact.

Another complicating factor is that the communication is often not ideal, with colleges and universities at odds with local health departments at times. Some students are considering going home, while others are told they cannot return home and risk exposing more vulnerable loved ones to increased risk. Some are having to find new housing as dorms are shutting down. For those living in dorms for the first time, they may be struggling with a difficult roommate situation, while being simultaneously told they cannot leave their rooms.

According to one study, 71% of college students surveyed indicated increased levels of stress, anxiety and depressive thoughts due to worry about their own health, the health of loved ones, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, reduced social interactions, and increased academic worries. Further, many students report struggling with increased thoughts of suicide, and others are also dealing with the loss of a loved one to COVID while away from their support systems.

According to Inside Higher Ed, October is historically a month in which students tend to experience a dip in mental health, and that is during non-pandemic times. College counseling centers are anticipating increased needs without having increased resources to meet the needs. Some students have reported that the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care, as they deal with the ongoing social, financial, and educational consequences of it.

The range of experiences and reactions to the pandemic on college students is broad. Some are able to move through it more easily than others. It is definitely taking a toll on students’ social, emotional and academic expectations. There is no doubt that this is a college year like no other.

At JFCS, we’re here to help. We have licensed, experienced therapists on staff who are available to meet with students via secure, confidential telehealth. If you, or a student you know, is experiencing any of this and would like some additional support, all you have to do is call. Our number is 952-546-0616.