This fall, students might not recognize their college campuses. No bustling move-in days and long hugs in front of dorm rooms, no breathless reunions over dining hall tables, and no daily treks to new classes. As about 20 million college students prepare to either return to school or take courses remotely, they’re not only facing the risk of infection with coronavirus, but also a mental health crisis.
The typical college environment isn’t just overwhelming, it’s consuming—and that presents challenges for adapting during a pandemic. “Students still have to study, get good grades, date, figure out their careers, get internships, and discover themselves,” says Martin Scanbrow Becker, an assistant professor of psychological and counseling services at Florida State University. “These will likely be interrupted by physical distancing and stress.”
Even without a pandemic looming, many college students find themselves mired in depression and anxiety, to the extent that some experts call it a mental health “epidemic.” A survey from the American College Health Association last year revealed that 60 percent of higher-ed students experience “overwhelming anxiety,” and a 2018 survey showed that 40 percent reported feeling so depressed that they had difficulty functioning at times. “Students who were stressed before COVID-19 are even more at risk for depression,” Scanbrow Becker says.
Now, as students return to the rigor of coursework, they’ll have to contend with the fact that college has been rapidly transformed by COVID-19, with remote courses, closed dining halls, suspended extracurricular activities, and a widely minimized social scene. “It’s going to be different no matter what path they choose, either returning to campus or learning remotely,” says Lindsay Oberleitner, a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University.
In spite of all the extreme changes, students can take on a few simple steps toward maintaining mental wellness through the next semester.
Set safety & health boundaries before you step foot on campus
Each student in a different boat when it comes to social distancing and caution in the face of COVID-19, so make sure to outline your personal rules before arrival on campus. “Everyone’s safety level is slightly different,” Oberleitner says. “It’s okay if others have stricter or looser guidelines than you.” Stick to your boundaries—skipping out on in-person gatherings or hangouts is more than understandable, and even advisable. “When you’re telling a friend, ‘Eh, I’m not okay with going to that,’ you have to be confident,” Oberleitner says. To firm up your nerves, try practicing your response in front of the mirror or with other peers.
Regain a sense of control over your life with schedules
When much of the world feels wild and unmanageable, writing a simple schedule with basics like studying, exercise, sleep, and nutrition can help you grasp a stronger sense of power over your life, Scanbrow Becker says. Online tools can give structure to a seemingly spineless day, but a good old notebook and pen works just as well.
Build relationships with your professors and classmates
With most classes now remote, students may lose out on spontaneous conversations with professors in the hallway or side chats with classmates during class. But these relationships aren’t completely out of reach. “You have to ask for it,” Oberleitner says. “It doesn’t hurt to send that email and build that relationship.” Having virtual coffee chats with professors and classmates can help you feel more connected to the people you’re spending time with on video calls for the bulk of the day.
Use your college’s mental health resources
Whether it’s counseling, therapy, or psychiatric help, most colleges offer a wide slate of telehealth options for free. Any student can, and should, jump on these opportunities. “You don’t need a mental illness to talk to a counselor,” Scanbrow Becker says. “You can get an appointment to talk through anything.” Even a casual chat with a counselor can lift a weight from your shoulders. Jennifer Rothman, a senior manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, also urges faculty and staff to learn about their college’s mental health resources so that they can clue students in when needed.
Detox from screens at the end of the day
Especially during self quarantine, everyone is obsessively drawn to screens. But now that classes, club meetings, counseling sessions, and social events all demand tech time, Zoom fatigue can hurt your mental health. “Screen time is exhausting and addicting,” Scanbrow Becker says. “Schedule in a digital detox where you put all your electronics down.” Try treating the end of the day as a sacred time by turning off your computer and close up your office area, if you have one.
Be a safe social butterfly
Staying in the loop with your college community is more essential than ever, especially for students living in home environments that aren’t safe or positive. “Purposefully plan Zoom dates, online trivia nights, and Netflix Party movie nights, and have fun with your friends virtually,” Rothman says. To maximize your social interactions, Scanbrow Becker encourages phone and video calls over texting. “Get that real human connection,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like you’re connecting when chatting on Messenger, but that’s not as effective in combating isolation as a video chat or a phone call.”
Keep an eye out for signs of mental illness among friends
For people on the outside, mental health decline can either be subtle or apparent. A drastic change in personality, for example, sometimes signals psychological distress, Rothman says. Other signs include class absences, plummeting grades, or neglected assignments. If a friend starts drinking or partaking in drug activity more than usual, it’s cause for concern, too. Make sure to point a loved one who’s struggling in the direction of on-campus resources or national networks.
Work towards accepting that campus life is going to be different
As students return to campus, there’s a universal hope that everything will be just as it was before the pandemic. “We all wish that,” Oberleitner says, “but we’re not there yet. The world is going to be a little different, and that’s okay.” College will be far from perfect these next few months—but accepting and building on this altered experience is the first step to having the most fulfilling semester possible.