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Mental health cannot be left out of the COVID-19 conversation

Over the last year, our lives have dramatically changed. No one has been excluded from feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the world. Not only does this disastrous pandemic affect the human body, it also affects the mind. At the university level, colleges shut down in March and transitioned to online learning, trying to quickly create a plan to bring students back in the fall. However, there is one thing our university and many others left out of their consideration: how to adequately address mental health during the pandemic. 

As students walk through the halls of the university, they are presented with countless posters about how to protect themselves physically from COVID-19; wash your hands, stay six feet apart, use hand sanitizer, wear your mask, etc. Although these measures are essential to the physical wellbeing of students and staff, we have to give attention to the illnesses that are invisible to the naked eye: anxiety, depression, panic, etc. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, during June 24-30, 2020, U.S. adults reported increases in a variety of mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults reported having experienced worse mental health outcomes, increased substance abuse and elevated suicidal ideation. 

COVID-19 has brought more than just physical restrictions; it has also generated high mortality rates. The American Psychological Association states that 41.6% of college students have anxiety. Living on a college campus, students are subject to a COVID-19 outbreak at any time, which could ultimately result in student deaths. Statistically, this could cause the mental wellbeing of students to decline severely, especially if they already have an underlying mental disorder. A student from York Hall, who requested that they remain anonymous, claimed in an interview that, “we forget about [mental health] when we talk about physical illness, like they aren’t connected. Everyone always talks about the virus… but no one actually talks about how we are supposed to deal with the panic, anxiety, and fear of contracting COVID-19 and potentially spreading it. Death and sickness are terrifying and we are living in the midst of it.” 

Another group of students expressed their concerns about mental health resources not being easily accessible to students because of cost and lack of advertisement. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) tracking poll was conducted in July, 2020 which stated that 53% of adults in the United States had been negatively impacted regarding their mental health due to worry and stress over the pandemic. This is significantly higher than the 32% reported in March, the first time this question was included in KFF polling. 

With the already high rates of anxiety found in college students, this period of uncertainty, as well as disruption of social support systems and extracurricular activities, could intensify these feelings. On top of this, students face uncertainty about their future, their own health and the health of their friends, peers and family. We are living through a time where stress and anxiety are lurking all around us. As a university community, we need to not only battle the physical aspects of COVID-19, but also for the mental wellbeing of our students and staff.

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