Transitioning from regular college life to isolation has been a shock to the system for everyone. While each person’s experience is different, many are struggling with the newfound isolation. Struggles with mental illness and mental wellbeing are a ramification of the pandemic, the full extent of which is largely unknown. To learn more, The Argus spoke with Assistant Professors of Psychology Alexis May and Royette Dubar about research that can potentially shed light on mental health during this uncertain time, the directors of CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Service), and students who shared their experiences with mental health and and mental wellbeing.
Professor Dubar specializes in sleep research at the University, and in May, Dubar is hoping to launch a study examining the relationship between sleep patterns and aspects of psycho-social adjustment (such as sleep patterns, loneliness, social ties, alcohol use, and social media) throughout the pandemic.
“Based on what I know from the literature, there does seem to be a very dynamic and mutual relationship between University student’s quality of sleep and the quality of their social ties,” Dubar said. “One concern that I do have in the absence of those ties or social ties that are obviously broken during the pandemic that might be one factor that might predict poor sleep quality and we know that has been linked to mental illness, difficulty with regulating emotions and just having a sense of overall wellbeing, so that’s one question that we are hoping to answer.”
Professor Dubar also listed a number of other potential stressors on mental health, such as a lack of concrete schedule. At college, bedtimes and mealtimes may change but are relatively structured. But now students may not know where their next meal is coming from, or at least have no control over which stores are open or if they will be well stocked, and the uncertainty can become a significant stressor.
“Because of the disruption of schedules, that in itself is a huge stressor, and we know that stressors that are uncontrollable tend to have a more negative impact on individual wellbeing and now there’s so much uncertainty so that’s another concern,” Dubar said.
Sleep patterns can also be disrupted by physical environments that aren’t secure or stable, or by other stressors, like a parent losing their job, or having to take on additional roles and responsibilities such as caring for siblings.
“Individuals who are not socially or familially supported might have not only decreased quality of sleep but decreased psychological wellbeing,” Dubar said.
Eight-to eight, a student-staffed crisis line provided by the University, noticed a significant uptick in folks reaching out for support after the initial news that the University would be transitioning to online school.
“There’s been a theme of issues with family and stress about the future,” Eight-to-eight wrote in an email to The Argus.
So, how can this be combatted? While a number of factors cannot be controlled, Dubar stressed the importance of trying to maintain regular bedtimes and mealtimes, if possible, which can help students reestablish a sense of control. May also discussed the specific challenges faced by University students.
“One thing that is especially challenging for college students and particularly Wesleyan students,” May said. “As a residential college is not only going through this unprecedented event but also for many students moving back home or to a new living situation and being removed from your community as well.”
Missing in-person connections was also reported by various students.
“I rely a lot on being able to talk to my friends, on being near them when I’m feeling down,” Caroline Bonnevie ’23 wrote in an email to The Argus, “So in that sense coping has been a bit tough.”
Dr. Jennifer D’Andrea, the director of CAPS and a licensed clinical psychologist, discussed the mental health impacts of quarantine in an email to The Argus.
“Isolation and disconnection are harmful for mental health,” Dr. D’Andrea wrote. “…and all students are experiencing this to some extent regardless of their individual circumstances.”
May also emphasized the individuality of this experience. Extroverts who get their energy from connecting with people and like going out and about will be affected in different ways than introverts.
“[There are] some folks for whom,” May said. “Maybe in some ways, they’re actually feeling a little less stressed or a little better because maybe some of the interpersonal interaction is something that is maybe a challenge they rise to everyday.”
At the same time, she comments, it might be harder for people with anxiety or who are more introverted to push themselves to reach out and connect.
Some students agreed that quarantine can be challenging, and have faced personal struggles with the isolation.
“It’s weird but this pandemic has made me feel closer to other people even though I’m physically far away, because I know that they’re experiencing the same thing as me and a huge part of my depression has been feeling alone,” Sarah Timbie ’23 wrote in a message to The Argus.
While many are finding comfort in the prevalence of social media and using technologies such as Zoom and FaceTime to connect, the lack of physically being near your friends after living a five-minute walk away from them at school is challenging.
“I love my family, and Zoom and FaceTime are incredibly helpful in trying to bridge the distance, but it can only do so much,” Bonnevie wrote in an email to The Argus. “Not being around everyone I care about at Wes and not being able to physically interact with them makes the general anxiety about how unending this feels in the moment a lot harder.”
Social media can be great for getting back some lost sense of connection, but Professor May warns that it can be a double-edged sword.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis on Zoom meetings and contacting people and texting, and I think that’s really important, and, that can get exhausting sometimes, too,” May said. “So I think allowing there to also be other ways to connect, be that…Words with Friends, or impromptu text chats that you pop into sometimes and take a break from other times.”
However, limiting your Zoom call time with friends doesn’t mean you have to cut out all social connections from your life. May emphasizes the significance of “weak ties”: the social connections we make when we have a conversation with a stranger across the street, or with the cashier in the grocery store. These small, seemingly trivial interactions can actually bolster our sense of connection and contribute to mental wellbeing.
Another pitfall of the internet is the overload of information from the news. There’s so much pressure to stay informed and be aware of the global situation, but the information overload can be damaging to mental wellbeing.
“I started ‘quarantine’ so to speak, by watching everything I could, by consuming all of the information available, even if most of it wasn’t news but just covering what was happening,” Sophie Gilbert ’23 wrote in a message to The Argus. “I don’t do that anymore, I honestly can’t. It’s become too overwhelming and frustrating, so for my own well-being, I keep myself informed, but i can’t watch the news the same way, can’t watch the press briefings. I just get frustrated.”
Gilbert’s experience aligned with Dubar’s worries that students may be taking in a lot of negative news coverage.
“I am concerned with the way our students might be consuming information, the news, for example, can be very depressing,” Dubar said. “I just worry that, although there are very positive outcomes of working with social media, it can also be very overwhelming for students as well. It’s important to realize what your limit is.”
Timbie shared her concern with finding a balance between being informed enough to take smart precautions and being inundated with information.
“Reading about the virus makes my heart beat faster and my head feel fuzzy with anxiety, so I try to stay away from news sources but at the same time there’s a feeling of wanting to be educated so that I can best protect myself and my family,” Timbie wrote.
Anxiety is only one of the many psychological effects of the pandemic that students may be experiencing. Dr. D’Andrea detailed a variety of symptoms that students may be experiencing, such as stress, worry, depression, loneliness, dread, insomnia, and low motivation/energy, caused, or exasperated by quarantine.
“Isolation and disconnection are harmful for mental health, and all students are experiencing this to some extent regardless of their individual circumstances. In addition to the impact of extended isolation, students are also struggling with the impact of the pandemic on the lives of their loved ones,” D’Andrea wrote in an email to the Argus. “Some have sick family members and some have lost family members to this illness. Some students have medical conditions that make them vulnerable. Many students’ families are experiencing financial hardship because of the situation.”
CAPS has implemented a number of strategies to try and support students’ mental health and wellbeing such as purchasing a secure online therapy platform and remote therapy for those on campus or in Connecticut.
“We are also doing our best to keep track of individual states as they relax their regulations regarding out-of-state therapists treating their residents, and when possible we are offering remote therapy to our students who have left the state. our on-call service remains in operation 24/7, so any student in distress has quick access to a clinician,” Dr. D’Andrea wrote. “We have added a large amount of pandemic-related resources to our web page www.wesleyan.edu/caps and our facebook page…we have prepared a series of live webinars which will be recorded and uploaded to our web page and facebook, we have created a blog called ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ which we are circulating to the community, and we are recording ‘fireside chat’ videos of various caps therapists talking about different aspects of self-care.”
Some students have also adapted various coping mechanisms and self-care activities to help promote good mental health or mental wellbeing.
“To deal with this sapped feeling I’ve really enjoyed going on bike rides, when it’s sunny, on the trail by my house and playing games with my friends as we talk over voice chat,” Max O’Hare ’23 wrote in an email to The Argus.
Effective self-care is different for each person—for some it’s creative outlets, for others it’s playing a lot of Animal Crossing.
“Creative outlets have been KEY for keeping me happy and fulfilled,” Gilbert wrote, “For the most part I’ve been doing a lot crafting! Embroidery, painting denim, and then there’s the sock monkeys! It started with an instagram video a friend sent me as a joke and now i’ve been making them for the past month or so. Picking out which socks I ordered a while ago to match personalities has been a fun exercise and sewing by hand is another thing that makes me slow down a bit.”
May emphasized the importance of slowing down as well, checking in on yourself, without judgement, but honestly assessing where your head is at while acknowledging that nothing about this scenario will ever be ideal.
“The awareness of the challenges and then the brainstorming, of are there some little things that can make it a bit better, right, not perfect, but a bit better,” May said. “Silver linings are both hard, and helpful in some ways to look for positives and gratitude but also sometimes they’re challenging. Sometimes there aren’t any and it’s not the right time to look for them.”
In quarantine, it’s very easy to feel completely isolated and trapped, but it’s important to remember that, while there are a lot of things out of your control, there are people you can reach out to for support. That being said, there are a number of resources available, provided by Wesleyan, such as CAPS, spiritual leaders, or Eight-to-eight, as well as local and national helplines for people who are looking for support.
“We also want to take this opportunity to offer our support for all Wesleyan students,” Eight-to-eight wrote. “It’s a crazy, hard time, but Eight-to-Eight is there as a resource.”
Even though we may not see each other in person, there are communities of people out there that still care about you. Although it may be more difficult to keep in touch with your friends and family members, or reach out to get support from a crisis line or mental health professional, it is absolutely worthwhile.
“Keep in mind,” May said, “if you’re noticing something that’s a little, iffy, you’re not alone and there’s a lot of people who are willing and able talk about it.”
Katarina Grealish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org