Norwich University student Jamie Heath has found herself stressed due to the widespread effects of COVID-19. Like almost every American who is not classified as an essential worker, she is being asked to practice social distancing. Heath and other students say that these social distancing measures have a negative effect on her mental health.
The Red Cross defines social distancing as “deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness.” It includes such actions as staying home whenever possible, avoiding non-essential travel, and staying six feet apart from others when outside the home.
Heath has been following these social distancing guidelines inside her apartment for over two weeks. She says she is very stressed, and that her professors are not lenient and are continuing to assign more work for her. “They don’t seem to understand that students are in a different atmosphere,” Heath said. She has tried to be motivated, but online work is completely different. “We aren’t in a classroom and we don’t have a set schedule anymore,” Heath said.
Heath distracts herself from her struggles by keeping busy with homework and Facetiming with her mom. “I Facetime my mom at least two times a day,” Heath said. Technology is a vital part of tending to social needs and, as Heath said, “it keeps me connected.”
Heath described herself as an extrovert. All of her friends live within minutes of each other and she was able to see them every day prior to shelter-in-place orders going out. Her friends positively impact her mental state and not being able to see them makes her “super scared” for her mindset.
As for younger students, Jesse White, a psychologist at Barre City Elementary and Middle School (BCEMS), is worried about what is to come. “Kids learn through play. They gain skills that control emotional behaviors, like waiting in line or sharing.” BCEMS has cancelled face-to-face classes for the remainder of the school year.
The American Psychological Association (APA) says quarantining has an effect on three major aspects of mental health: autonomy, competency and connectedness. The effects leave people feeling like they don’t have control of the situation. White said this “loss of control” can be observed as anxiety and excitement in children.
“I don’t think kids can learn in complete isolation. They can’t learn when they’re too anxious and upset,” White said. According to White, children can feel the stress and anxiety of their parents and sometimes feel the need to take care of them in times of distress. If a child is spending too much time trying to tend to their parents’ emotional needs, it doesn’t give them space in their brains to absorb new information from the virtual classroom.
A study from the medical journal, “The Lancet”, showed that during the SARs breakout in 2003, between 10 percent and 23 percent of people suffered from PTSD due to social isolation. Professor Ian Hickie at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre said, “Prolonged quarantine or social isolation will exacerbate anxiety, depression and a sense of hopelessness.”
Kinsey Oliver, a University of New Hampshire (UNH) freshman, contemplates how her social distancing has affected her mentality. “Overall, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not returning to school,” Oliver said. In March, UNH made the decision to cancel all in-person classes, forcing students to move out for the remainder of the semester.
“When we are with our friends 24/7 and then that is just taken away from us and we can’t see each other for five months, it sounds dramatic, but it’s a shock,” Oliver said. Several UNH students can empathize with this wave of emotion.
“I’m a generally anxious person. If I start thinking about [isolation] too much I start freaking out. It’s the unknown that is stressful to think about,” Oliver said. She has spent a lot of time working-out and eating well to keep her mental health at bay. She is trying to be positive and knows how to get herself out of a “funk,” however, she worries about the long-term effects.
The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMN) encourages everyone to create a routine. From changing out of your pajamas to making a to-do list, it’s important for people to make something out of their days.
In hopes to keep student’s mental health stable, White advised that parents are purposefully checking in on their children. White said it is important to practice modeling how you feel in such a changeable time. Parents should seek out positivity while also giving children a way to cope with negative feelings.
White said, “All these feelings are going to be there and they’re going to come out some way.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, UNH Psychological and Counseling Services (PACS) is still available to all UNH students and faculty and can call to make an appointment at (603) 862-2090. If there is an immediate threat to self or others, please call 911.