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The Dark Shadow of COVID: Mental Health Impact Persists

In recent months, more and more campuses have announced they will reopen, but the dark shadow of mental health issues will extend into the fall semester and beyond.

We are now experiencing a rise in COVID cases around the country, but hope persists that science will eventually be successful in quelling this deadly virus. However, that does not mean that the consequences of the pandemic are over. For students at all levels, the mental health problems continue.

Anxiety, depression and suicides are lasting effects of the isolation, fear and loss generated by the disease. Loss extends far and wide. It includes the loss of those who have died and those who suffer long-haul COVID. Also included are the loss of months and years of social engagement, interpersonal relationships and confidence in creating new relationships. These losses can devastate lives of people in all age groups, but particularly in the fragile state of late adolescence and young adulthood. These deeply intense feelings and changes can have dire consequences on the lives of those who are affected.

While it is still very early to measure the impact of the pandemic on mental health, it is clear that there are severe ramifications. Analyzing data earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported,

During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019 … During the pandemic, a larger than average share of young adults (ages 18-24) report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder (56%). Compared to all adults, young adults are more likely to report substance use (25% vs. 13%) and suicidal thoughts (26% vs. 11%). Prior to the pandemic, young adults were already at high risk of poor mental health and substance use disorder, though many did not receive treatment.

We are not getting back to normal. It will be a long time after the last COVID case is cured (if ever that occurs) before we can return to normal. The mental health damage will persist and even grow after the virus itself is vanquished. Even as the economy ramps back up and unemployment drops, the dark shadow of mental health damage expands. It has already had a tragic impact on college campuses.

The prestigious, rather small Dartmouth College campus in New Hampshire has suffered multiple deaths of freshmen since the beginning of the pandemic, write Soleil Gaylord and Arielle Feuerstein in The Dartmouth: “The deaths of four undergraduate students — three of which were by suicide, according to reporting from The Dartmouth and the Boston Globe — brought widespread grief and sorrow to the campus community.” Gaylord and Feuerstein note the complexities of providing services. In some cases, mental health care is denied to distant students because of their home-state laws that prohibit remote counseling.

The phenomenon of “suicide contagion” is an insidious aspect of the mental health crisis we face. Kate Hidalgo Bellows reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education that evidence is accumulating of related clusters of suicides on campuses:

Clusters of suicides — multiple deaths in close proximity — have raised concerns of “suicide contagion” on campuses. Research has shown that exposure to suicide can increase suicidal behavior in others, especially those who are already at risk. “It can happen at small places like Dartmouth [or] big places like the University of Washington,” said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “They’re even more tragic when you have a series of deaths like this because it really affects the community. Every institution ought to look at the root causes of this. We know that mental-health issues are a significant challenge.”

It is so much easier to diagnose COVID than it is to identify and diagnose mental health damage. There are no quick saliva tests for paranoia, depression, loneliness and associated disorders. Even in the early stages, those afflicted may not even recognize the signs of depression. Yet the end result is just as devastating: long-term disability or even death.

For distant online students and those who cannot come to a mental health center, the professionals are somewhat hampered in making diagnoses and delivering counsel. Elon University counselor Mark Eades says, “Virtual counseling is beneficial because it saves the commute time for students, but it makes it more difficult for the counselor to read the student’s body language. Some of our training when we’re becoming therapists is to not just listen to words, but also to see what the person’s entire person is telling you. It’s hard to really see if a person is sort of slumped or they might be saying one thing or showing something different.”

Princeton University dean of the college Jill Dolan recommended earlier this year that faculty consider easing workloads and take into account student mental health for the end of the semester. “We have to figure out how to acknowledge our common humanity while also maintaining our rigorous expectations,” she continued. “And that’s something that, pandemic aside, I think all of us very much want to do.”

The need for understanding, flexibility and broad perspectives will continue for semesters and years to come. Lives have been altered. There will be no “return to normal” for many students, staff, faculty and administrators. How are you personally incorporating this perspective into your work? How are you leading and encouraging colleagues at your institution to take a holistic view of the student into account as standards and outcomes are crafted?

This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog. 

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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