Students particularly affected by mental health disorders during quarantine, expert says
The US has seen a 34% increase in severe anxiety since start of the coronavirus pandemic
With COVID-19 forcing classes to move online, students to move home and most of the country to #stayathome, many things have changed in the last few months. For University of Wisconsin sophomore Audrey Swanson, the biggest change has been to her mental health.
“I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since like before I can remember,” Swanson said. “So I mean, it’s definitely had its ups and downs in college, but now it’s kind of down. It’s not the worst it’s ever been, but I can definitely tell that there’s a lot I need to work on.”
Swanson said since she has struggled with her mental health for so many years, she notices when it is better and when it is worse. Swanson said she noticed such a change because her mental health was actually the best it has ever been this semester, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
And Swanson is not alone in noticing an increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
According to Mental Health America, there was a 34% increase in people screened per day for severe anxiety in the first two weeks of March alone. Because of this, the number of “excess severe anxiety” results associated with the coronavirus rose to over 1,000 on March 15, and has grown since.
Expert on adolescent mental health and Associate Professor in the UW School of Social Work, Tally Moses said this increase has been particularly noticeable among her students.
“This period is causing a lot of people to suffer — whether they have a history of mental health conditions or not,” Moses said. “As we know, rates of anxiety — depression too — but in particular rates of severe anxiety has been going up with recent cohorts.”
Moses said college students may be more prone to anxiety during this time, as rates of young adult anxiety were already really high before the pandemic happened. Moses credits this trend to young adults having grown up with social media and greater social pressures surrounding them.
While the uncertainty of the pandemic can be anxiety-inducing enough, Moses said the anxiety students are facing is different for different people.
For students with more privilege, anxiety comes more from the ambiguity of what will happen with the pandemic, coping with new living situations and struggles of social isolation while in quarantine, Moses said.
“The other piece of it has to do with the social isolation during an age and a developmental stage where it is sort of expected and developmentally desirable to be with your peers,” Moses said. “And not being able to do that and having that monotony in most routines and not really having a lot of social stimulation I think is, is just putting fuel to the fire.”
However, for less privileged students, anxiety comes from worries of financial insecurity, what their next meal will be and having a secure place to complete school work, along with those other anxieties.
Moses added she has noticed many of her students struggle with motivation and being able to focus on school work — a problem Swanson said she has been noticing in herself.
Swanson said while her anxiety can keep her motivated to complete classwork, she has noticed a lack of motivation to exercise and get out of the house during quarantine.
“For things like working out, since the gyms are closed, I can’t motivate myself to do that at home,” Swanson said. “So I haven’t exercised since quarantine started. So that’s the big thing that I haven’t been doing.”
Swanson, who was in Madison for the first half of quarantine and is now quarantining at home with her parents in Florida, said she gauges her mental health on what time she gets out of bed in the morning. And while it has been better at home with her family, Swanson said she often doesn’t get out of bed until 2 p.m. in quarantine.
“I had classes to get me out of bed this semester and it was great because some of them were earlier and some of them a little bit later,” Swanson said. “But mostly I was able to get all of them in the morning, which was great because that is kind of how I gauge how I’m doing mental health wise, is how easy it is to get out of bed in the morning. And I was doing really well before quarantine, and now it’s just so bad. So if I can get up before 11, it’s great.”
Moses said this kind of regression is ok during this time and should not be something students beat themselves up over.
“One of the things I would say for people who are coming into the pandemic with a preexisting mental health condition is to give yourself a break” Moses said. “Expect a regression, expect that you’re not going to do as well as you have been doing potentially, expect that some of the work may be undone — and don’t panic about that.”
One of the most important things for people struggling with mental health right now, Moses said, is to remember things will get better soon and to start taking small steps to get there.
Peyton David, a senior at UW who also struggles with anxiety and depression, echoed Moses’ advice, saying what helps her the most is remembering she will get through this tough time.
“At some point, it’s over and at some point you feel better — and that’s just kind of what you have to tell yourself to get through the day,” David said. “And you don’t really know when it’s going to be over, but you’ll know when you’re on the other side, I think that’s the best advice I can give anyone who’s starting to deal with anxiety, or depression because of this.”
David has found that working on creative projects and reconnecting with old friends has helped her during quarantine. Swanson said she has been working to do this by trying to set a routine for herself and recommends anyone currently struggling with mental health do that as well.
Moses agreed with David and Swanson’s recommendations, adding that it can be helpful to limit your intake of social media and news, and create a strong sense of community right now — whether that is virtually or six feet apart.
However, Moses said the most important thing for everyone during this time to remember is that everyone is in it together, fighting COVID-19 as a community.
“I think a lot of what I think people need to do right now is to, I guess, accept where we are,” Moses said. “Don’t individualize your stress. Try to understand [this pandemic] as a collective experience.”