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 distancing restrictions 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.
- 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 emotions every 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.”
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.