COVID-19 adds to student anxiety and depression as safety measures and restrictions across campus keep students socially distanced at UNC Asheville.
“The thing with COVID is that there are all these rules that are in place for a very good reason, but there are so many rules that I feel like I’m walking on eggshells and if I take one misstep I’m going to do something that’s going to hurt someone else,” said Storm DeChant, a junior at UNC.“It feels like every breath you take, you’re one second away from getting COVID, even if there’s no COVID in the air.”
Student anxiety in college isn’t new. Students exposed to new environments face challenges such as new social circles, increased responsibility and financial stress.
“There are lots of people that feel anxious, they feel worried, they feel keyed-up, they feel on edge that something bad is going to be happening. Anxiety is usually future oriented,” said Keith Cox, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at UNCA.
COVID-19 restrictions force social distancing among students, staff and faculty alike, encouraging isolation. Isolation withdrawal is one way to respond to being anxious, according to Cox.
“Anxiety and depression are highly related. About half of people that get anxiety disorder diagnoses also get depression diagnoses and the other way around,” Cox said.
According to DeChant, COVID-19 makes it easy for her to fall back into old patterns.
“Anxiety is like a drug, and not a fun one. It causes you to do things that are so easy, to hide away, to shut yourself down, to do things that will make you numb,” the UNCA junior said.“I feel like I have to fight myself not to go back to my reclusive nature, because it’s still there and I could relapse at any point.”
Students who work while attending school face additional time pressure and financial stress.
“They’re taking out loans and so they’re working to try not to fall behind. I find that students often feel the need to work 20, 30, 40 hours a week and take a full course load, which is essentially doing two full-time jobs,” Cox said. “That’s a structural problem we have in our society right now that we need to figure out, that we need to get addressed. If we expect students to be able to go to college, we need to do that and not be such a heavy financial toll on them.”
First year students struggle more often with social anxiety that leads to depression than longer-term students, according to Jay Cutspec, the director of health and counseling at UNCA.
“Generally freshmen are away from home for the first time navigating the world by themselves. Freshmen students are vulnerable to depression given that they don’t have the typical peer support and they are trying to find these relationships,” Cutspec said.
“My freshman year my parents were always texting me about looking into a major and getting a job in the future. I don’t know who the hell I am. How am I supposed to look ahead to the future about who I want to be? How am I supposed to know all this,” DeChant said.
UNCA requires students to choose a major eventually, which can add to the pressure of attending college, according to DeChant.
“For me one of the big stressors is not knowing if what everyone else wanted for me is what I wanted and struggling with the question of am I doing this because everyone keeps telling me to or am I actually doing what I want to do,” the 20-year-old said.
According to DeChant, pressure from peers and friends creates stress when choosing a major or minor as well.
“Another big stressor is your peers literally telling you they have a major in this, minor in this and seem to have their whole life planned out when they may not have everything planned out, but they talk to you and seem so confident. Your own friends can stress you out,” DeChant said.
The UNC Asheville Health and Counseling Center offers counseling and psychiatric services to address student needs. The school also provides health outreach programs for education around mental health topics and offers peer support to students who seek it, according to Cutspec.
“These programs are on a variety of topics which include healthy relationships, healthy lifestyles, safe sex, ways to reduce anxiety, stress management, and many others,” he said. “I think we need to continue to educate students about the facts around depression. We also need to continue to destigmatize getting treatment for it, especially for men. We also need to encourage and support healthy lifestyles such as exercise and nutritious eating which are protective factors for depression.”