When we think of mental health during the pandemic, I’m sure we’re all aware of the acute pains of worsening anxiety and depression. We’ve all felt them, to some extent.
We’ve all felt the pressing nervousness of what tomorrow’s COVID-19 case count will be. We’ve all had mornings where we’ve struggled to peel off our sheets and get out of bed. We’ve all felt stress thinking about the unpredictability of the ever-changing world around us.
“There are so many unknowns, so many things that are out of our control,” said Frank Kelemen, head of Albion College Counselling Services. “It’s the perfect storm for stress and anxiety. I’ve been talking to students about differentiating between what you normally think about as clinical anxiety, generalized anxiety and anxiety that you see during this time, which is COVID-anxiety. If you’re not anxious now, you’re not thinking. You’re not awake. It’s just a very, very anxiety inducing time.”
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 47 million Americans, which equates to roughly 20% of the population, struggle with a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. While that is a high statistic, it also means that 80% of individuals, the majority of the population, don’t struggle with a diagnosable mental illness in an average year.
So, even though day to day anxieties and bouts of depression have been talked about at length, what’s less talked about is the relapse and regression of other serious mental disorders, which includes more severe cases of anxiety and depression.
If 20% of all adults struggle with mental illness on an average year, considering that this year has been anything but average, it’s more likely that the percentage of adults struggling in 2020 has been even higher.
In the college students population, the number of individuals struggling is even higher.
“It’s pretty well known that particularly 18- to 22-year-old college students, according to the American College Associations surveys the past several years, have shown significant increases in anxiety levels and depression levels among college students,” said Kelemen. “Some of the surveys have indicated that over 80% of college students report debilitating anxiety at some point in their career. And there’s reports in the 70s of students saying that they feel so down they can’t get out of bed. This has been seen nationally, increases in depression and anxiety among college students. And there’s multiple reasons for that.”
In the midst of COVID-19, college students’ normal anxieties regarding classwork, responsibilities for sports or other organizations, and more are heightened by outside factors.
“The pandemic makes it worse, certainly. One of the ways you can help yourself is by being with friends,” said Kelemen. “And in the situation we’re in, there’s a lot of isolation, there’s a lot fewer opportunities to get together and see people face-to-face. There’s virtual opportunities, which is helpful, but it’s different. It doesn’t have the same impact of being with people where you can touch them or be close to people socially. I think there are a number of reasons that make this pandemic difficult on college students.”
The National Empowerment Center claims that mental disorders, particularly those rooted in past trauma, develop as a coping mechanism for an individual when faced with trying times, and trying times have been plentiful thus far in 2020.
So, using that logic, when times are trying, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, depends on the cyclical, consistent nature of obsessions and compulsions when the world seems undependable or inconsistent. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relives the past to escape their current reality. Individuals with eating disorders focus on exercising control over food or their bodies when the world seems out of control.
As the world’s knowledge of COVID-19 has grown, we have come to understand that some people are more likely to contract the virus than others based off pre-existing conditions. The CDC cites that mental illness during a pandemic shares a similar trait: Those who have previously struggled with mental illness fall into a category of people more likely to have a severe stress response during the pandemic. Thus, the pandemic can trigger relapses into unhealthy coping mechanisms and mental illnesses.
Although COVID-19 is, obviously, a pressing issue, there is more going on in the world outside of the pandemic as well. Unfortunately, given the nature of those things, they tend to add to our stress levels rather than alleviate them.
“It’s not just the pandemic. It’s important that we recognize that there’s so much more going on in the world that is causing tremendous amounts of stress,” said Kelemen. “The racial issues that are so prevalent and so difficult to manage, the fires out west – We have students from California, and it seems like the whole west coast is ablaze from Los Angeles to Seattle. You see the pictures and it’s scary. We have climate change issues, so many things. And for those who are politically active, there are concerns about what’s going to happen in this election. There are so many things on all of our minds that make life more stressful.”
Moving forward in a positive way
In the midst of this raging mental health crisis, not all hope is lost. There are still things we can do to help ourselves, and many of those things start with simple, day-to-day habits.
“Self care is essential,” said Kelemen. “Taking time to sleep. Taking time during the day even though you have these schedules to take a break, do something fun, do something relaxing. There are free meditation apps, using things like that throughout the day to break up the stress, because I think the workload and the stress load this year is higher for individuals, so taking time on a regular basis throughout the day to do something that’s not stressful.”
Albion College’s campus, in particular, is not ignorant of the pressures and stressors its students face. This year, especially, Counselling Services is doing everything it can to implement new programs in order to make sure students feel supported by their community.
“As far as our campus, I think we do a lot. We do as much as we have the staffing for,” said Kelemen. “We’re open for regular hours, and we’re adding more groups. We have a coping with COVID group, an anxiety group, we’re adding more types of specified groups for learning skills and coping skills, but could we use more? Absolutely. But I think we’ve done a lot, and the college is very supportive of our office. Dean Wright and President Johnson are very supportive of what we do.”
Albion is doing as much as it can with the resources it has in order to ensure students’ comfort and safety, both mentally and physically. In the outside world, however, this same attitude is lacking.
“Are we doing enough? I don’t think there’s ever enough being done,” said Kelemen. “There’s just not enough funding for psychiatric and mental health care, and there’s a disparity in psychiatric care and physical care.”
That leaves us with two battles to fight at once, and maybe the issue is that we don’t realize it. We’re fighting the COVID-19 pandemic on the front lines, but we’re leaving the mental health epidemic up to fate to figure out. We can’t do that. We need to raise awareness, and we need to fight that battle too.
We keep track of the people diagnosed with COVID-19. We watch those numbers tick up each day. But behind closed doors, diagnoses of mental illnesses are ticking up as well. Just because we don’t see it, just because we don’t receive a daily count on how many new cases have been added, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Despite the darkness and negativity in the world around us, we do have the power to focus on the controllable aspects of our lives rather than giving energy to the uncontrollable. One of those controllable aspects includes wearing a mask, washing our hands, keeping ourselves safe and, in turn, keeping others safe. Thus far, Albion’s system has been effective, and students can find even just a small sense of comfort in that.
“The testing that’s going on and the results of the testing have shown that campus is doing well,” said Kelemen. “There’s positivity. We’re so far ahead of other schools and the rest of the state, so something is working right.”