By: Jessica A. Gold
It’s officially back-to-school season even though this school year is anything but normal—something you know especially well if you’re a college student. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives in countless ways and it’s now wreaking havoc on the typical college experience of students across the country too. These changes don’t just have practical consequences; they’re likely impacting your mental health also.
You might be feeling some shifts in your expectations, plans, and experiences already. Instead of getting ready to head to campus and shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond for room organizers, you might be stuck waiting to hear if your school is opening for in-person instruction or remaining entirely online. Instead of figuring out new student orientation parties or football games, you might be navigating social distancingrestrictions and event cancellations. You may even go to a school that opened in person, had an outbreak of COVID-19, and subsequently moved online.
All of these changes and uncertainties understandably come with a sea of different (and potentially contradictory) emotions. As a psychiatrist who works with college students, I have been riding that wave of emotions alongside you since spring break in March. The students I see have been happy, sad, angry, frustrated, tired, anxious, and all of these things combined. Despite how valid these feelings are, I find my patients keep discounting their experiences or worrying it’s not okay to feel the way that they do.
So to help remind you that whatever emotions you find yourself grappling with are normal, I emailed some other college health providers, therapists, and psychiatrists to ask what they were hearing too. Below are just some of the college mental health struggles and experiences popping up a lot of these days, so if you can relate, you’re definitely not alone.
1. You’re struggling with uncertainty.
Uncertainty has been constant through this entire pandemic. The news changes, policies change, decisions from school administrations change, and almost nothing feels predictable anymore. With so much up in the air, it’s understandable if you’re dealing with a roller coaster of emotionsevery day.
“This is something that none of us has ever lived through or experienced before,” Lindsey Herzog, L.C.S.W., and staff counselor at Washington University in St. Louis, tells SELF. “As such, we don’t know how things will play out and that uncertainty breeds anxiety.”
2. You’re exhausted.
Another one of the most common complaints from my patients right now is that they are exhausted—physically and mentally. Anxiety is a huge culprit since being anxious can be like running a marathon (your muscles tighten, your heart races, your breath is faster). There is only so much our bodies can handle before they crash.
Not sleeping, of course, will make us tired too. Plenty of people have found that the pandemic is screwing with their sleep hygiene, whether due to stress or practical factors like a different schedule. Try these tips for falling asleep and these tips for managing pandemic-induced sleep problems.
3. You’re grieving the loss of your identity.
Even if you don’t realize it, there’s a good chance that you derive a lot of your sense of identity from college—from what you’re studying, to what groups you’re involved with, to who you spend your time with, and more. With typical college activities on hold thanks to the pandemic, you might be feeling lost, Stephanie Zerwas, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at UNC Chapel Hill and a psychologist in private practice, tells SELF. Now she’s hearing a lot of, “Who am I if I’m not an athlete, a camp counselor, or a part of my group?”
In case you need to hear it: You are more than just your role as a college student. “Even if you can’t train the way you used to or go to the camp you’ve grown up with, you can identify the values that make your life interesting and meaningful,” says Zerwas. “For some, those values might be showing courage; for others, it’s adventure, and for others, it’s kindness or altruism. You can find ways to stay true to these values to organize your days even when your activities feel unstable.”
4. You’re anxious about how all of this will affect your future.
As a college student, you’re probably used to spending a lot of time thinking about the future, and it can feel like one tiny step out of sequence can throw off all your plans. It’s understandable that your thoughts start to spiral: If you don’t do as well in your classes because online schooling is harder for you but you want to go to graduate school, how will you ever get into a good program? If you don’t get that internship because there are limited internships right now, how can you ever get a job? Everyone probably keeps telling you it will work out on its own, and you’re not alone if you find that utterly unsatisfying. The truth is, we don’t know how things will work out, and it’s natural for that to stress you out.
5. You’re really concerned about money.
College is expensive and debt-inducing enough on a typical day, let alone during one of the worst financial crises in our nation’s history. Students who usually work jobs to help pay for school have not been able to do so, and parents who might help with some or all of the cost could have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.
On top of the financial stress, many students are also feeling guilty using money to pay for college at all when their families are struggling financially, Sarah Whitman, M.D., a psychiatrist and a consultant at Thomas Jefferson University Counseling Services in Philadelphia, tells SELF. She finds that this is especially true with virtual learning; plenty of people are weighing whether or not the cost is worth it.
6. You’re worried about your own health.
While you may not have thought often about your physical health in the past, there’s a first time for everything. A pandemic is a pretty natural time to start. Even if your health has been a concern since the beginning of the pandemic, depending on your circumstances, it can make complete sense that you would worry much more now about contracting the virus than you did before, according to Marcia Morris. M.D., the author of The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. You may be returning to campus where you will have to be in contact with more people and engage in activities you avoided over the summer, for instance.
7. You’re frustrated by all of the rules and limitations.
Anger is a really common emotion right now, whether you’re frustrated by how the pandemic is putting a damper on your college experience or pissed off that you’re still stuck at your parents’ house. Sometimes anger can be a result of anxiety or any number of tough emotions. There’s also a chance that you don’t know exactly where your anger is coming from. That’s all valid. Not to mention that a lot of the activities we usually did to help us deal with our negative emotions are just not accessible or safe right now (like going to the gym). Feelings of frustration, anger, and sadness are completely normal, says Herzog.
8. You’re dealing with a ton of FOMO about everything.
On top of the big college activities you have no choice but to miss out on because they’ve been canceled, you might also be feeling FOMO around things you’re choosing to sit out. Maybe your friends have resumed activities you’re still not comfortable with, like going on trips or hanging out in big groups. While you might feel confident in your decision not to participate, it can still hurt to feel like you’re missing out. And that sucks.
9. You’re questioning whether you “deserve” to be sad or grieve.
Students often will say that grieving the loss of school as they know it is nothing compared to bigger issues like racism or death from COVID-19. When I talk to my patients, they’re often upset at themselves for grieving their school-related losses, determined that they shouldn’t be sad when it could be so much worse.
If you have the same thoughts, please don’t beat yourself up. When you compare your grief and minimize your own experience, you invalidate it, which in turn makes it harder to get through. All grief is real and you’re allowed to name it, feel it, and process it. As grief expert David Kessler says, “The worst loss is always your loss.”
10. You’re more content than usual—and maybe guilty about it.
There is a group of students who have, in many ways, felt better than usual during the pandemic. Some of them are more introverted or have social anxiety, and as a result, they’ve felt better having fewer of the social life demands of college. Doris Iarovici, M.D., a psychiatrist and the author of Mental Health Issues and the University Student, points out that sometimes these students can also feel guilty when they know how much others have struggled.
Others have used the time during the pandemic to practice true self-care and prioritize themselves. Dr. Morris notes that some have reflected on their interests and chosen to pursue other career paths, some have slept better, and others have taken up new hobbies. Without so much pressure—to socialize, to succeed, to do—you might have a chance to really reflect on what you actually like and want to do. If you’ve never had the time to pause and check in with your feelings before, this opportunity might be a small silver lining or comfort right now.
11. You’re unable to concentrate or get as much done as you used to.
Pretty much every change caused by the pandemic has had the capacity to impact our ability to concentrate, such as sleep hygiene, diet, exercise, substance use, our employment and financial situations, our schedules and environments, and access to social support. Mood, anxiety, and certain mental health conditions like ADHD can factor in as well.
With so many potential causes, it can be difficult to know the exact source of your concentration and productivity struggles, but it is critically important to give yourself grace to do less during this time and try to accept that is going to happen. You might even consider adjusting your course load if you can by taking different or fewer classes. “I have a number of students who are extremely high-achieving and I help them recognize that just because you can do everything doesn’t mean you should do everything,” Kevin Simon, M.D., a senior child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF.
12. You’re upset with friends who have conflicting views.
While college is often a time to experience open conversation and new points of view, it’s not surprising that many students are worried about their friend groups feeling polarized lately. This pandemic has been rife with opposing opinions regarding anything from face masks to social distancing. Many of my patients have expressed embarrassment that they are worried when their friends aren’t or frustration that their friends don’t abide by best safety practices.
It might be helpful to remember that everyone comes from extremely different experiences and to approach disagreements from a place of compassion. “People who don’t know anyone who has had a serious issue with COVID-19 often find it hard to take this disease seriously,” Jill Grimes, M.D., a family physician and the author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook, tells SELF. “Add in regional or political bias, and it multiplies.”
If you’re dealing with something similar, you might find this guideon how to deal when you and your loved ones disagree about social distancing helpful. That said, college is also a great time to find friends who share your core values. If a friend’s opinions around COVID-19 and the pandemic highlight larger differences—or frankly, if the friendship has started to make you feel bad—Dr. Grimes says you can try to empower yourself to walk away.
13. You’re fearing judgment about your own decisions.
On the other hand, you might be exploring whether or not you can safely have in-person social interaction and might even be considering certain risks to get your social fix. You wouldn’t be alone, according to therapist Brit Barkholtz, M.S.W., L.G.S.W. For example, some of her students are creating COVID-19 pods where they commit to a mutual level of isolation in order to interact with each other.
Barkholtz says these students are likely going to face judgment from those who feel their plans aren’t safe or well-thought-out enough—and you might be fearing that same judgment. But as long as you’re making your decisions with public health guidelines in mind and really doing your best to stay safe (and keep others safe) while socializing, have some self-compassion. Social connection is such an integral part of maintaining our mental health. No one can blame you for trying to find a way to make it happen safely.
14. You’re concerned about your eating or drinking habits.
Many of my patients have used their relationship to food or alcohol as a coping mechanism during the pandemic. Maybe you’re stress snacking in a way that leaves you feeling not great, maybe a past eating disorder or substance use problem has resurfaced, or maybe you’re just not loving how you’re relating to food and alcohol these days.
Since these habits can become harmful to your mental and physical health too, I encourage my patients to find healthier and safer ways to manage their stress. This post has some useful tips on dealing with food issues during quarantine, and this post will help you check in with yourself about your pandemic drinking habits. Also, check out this post if you’re interested in going sober.
15. You’re really, really ready to go back to campus.
If you’re someone who is still stuck at home instead of being back on campus, you could be dealing with a whole other host of problems. Even if home is a supportive environment for you, it is often really hard for college students to return home for a long time after being away and becoming more independent. It can feel like you revert to your childhood rules and your parents are overly strict, or it can feel like you revert to your childhood roles and have to play interference in your parents’ fighting or help parent your siblings.
More than that, home might not be a safe place for you to be you. For example, many LGBTQ youth feel supported in college but unaccepted back home, Jack Turban, M.D., a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells SELF. If you’re stuck at home because of the pandemic, you might be dealing with a whole storm of unhappiness, shame, and insecurity.
16. You’re feeling super lonely.
People often think that with social media, it’s hard for young people to feel lonely or disconnected, but that’s not true. In fact, Generation Z is often referred to as “the loneliest generation.” It’s crucial to make an effort to reduce loneliness right now, especially for students not returning to campus.
Even if you are on campus and surrounded by others, loneliness can still be a problem. “[It doesn’t] have to do with how many friends you have or how many people you interact with every day,” Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., the author of The Happiness Track and science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, tells SELF. It’s about the quality of your connections. Maybe you haven’t yet had the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships on campus or you found that your friends aren’t the support system you need through the challenges of the pandemic. There are many ways to feel lonely (and these tips might help).
17. You’re concerned about your mental health.
While there’s no “normal” in a pandemic, struggling with your mental health is really normal right now. “People struggling emotionally is to be expected and perfectly natural,” Victor Schwartz, M.D., the chief medical officer at The Jed Foundation and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, tells SELF.
That said, just because it’s natural under the circumstances doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it. If the load is too great, Dr. Schwartz recommends leaning on support to help with the baggage. Start with these tips around college mental health and therapy or this guide to finding an affordable therapist, as well as these mental health resources specifically for Black people. You might also find these online support groupshelpful. You have options and there is no “right time” to ask for help.