‘It’s important for people to be proactive about staying connected to people in their life’: Students struggle to cope with isolation and depression during the winter of COVID-19
With progressively inclement weather and new mutations of COVID-19, opportunities for Washington University students to safely socialize are becoming increasingly limited. As the sun continues to set early in the evening, students are spending more time indoors, often alone and in the dark—conditions that can increase feelings of isolation and depression.
“While actual data are not yet available, one can assume that the pandemic may be exacerbating many struggles related to depression and anxiety,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Support and Wellness Dr. Kirk Dougher said.
Assistant Director of Mental Health Services Dr. Jordan Fields agreed that there is cause for concern about increased rates of depression this winter.
“When people are isolated and unable to participate in as many of their coping routines and behaviors, people develop mood issues and dysregulation,” Fields said. “We see a lot more irritability, lowered mood, changes in appetite, disruptions in sleep habits—a lot of things that are commonly seen in depressive disorders. Now that we are getting into these winter months, it does set the stage for potentially worsened symptoms of seasonal pattern depression for people.”
College students are at a particularly high risk for these symptoms due to the fast-paced, deadline-driven nature of the semester.
Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences Brian Carpenter explained that different individual experiences could put a person at a higher risk for developing a depressive disorder. “If a person is experiencing stress for some other reason, like…they’ve got an incredibly stressful semester or while they were at school, they had a parent who fell ill. Any kind of those stressors can increase a person’s vulnerability for developing a psychological disorder.”
Faculty Assistant in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department Justin Dodd echoed Carpenter’s comments, noting that roughly 10% of college students already suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“We have seen an increase in adjustment disorders, diagnoses for regular anxiety, or for major depressive disorder generally,” Dodd said. “Those things are definitely on the rise due to the pandemic and there has been some recent research, as recent as December of 2020, that has supported that.”
In order to combat the effects of increased winter-time isolation, many Resident Advisors have supplied students with engaging virtual activities such as group trivia games and movies. However, some RAs have struggled to create events that students are excited to engage in after spending much of their day online.
“Something that we’ve really struggled with is trying to find ways to have programs where students would want to attend,” senior Belal Jamil, an RA for Umrath House, said. “It’s a lot harder because while they want to do in-person stuff, they can’t. When winter started, it also came with academic workload building up a lot, so a lot of requests that residents had were finding ways to do self-care.” Jamil gave the example of programs featuring hot chocolate, face masks and adult coloring books.
The University is also seeking creative ways to build a sense of community among students who may be feeling isolated.
“[Campus Life] has created activities that afford more distance and are looking at how they can bring folks together more,” Dougher said. “The graduate programs are working on engaging students in labs and from distance. Residential Life has altered a great many things and are looking at some changes for isolation and quarantine housing.”
The University also offers a variety of mental health services through Habif Health and Wellness Center on the South 40. However, Habif’s mental health services have been criticized for long wait times and inadequate resources, among other issues.
Feelings of isolation and depression during the COVID-19 winter are not exclusive to students.
According to Fields, many of the counselors who work on the front lines of seasonal mental health crises are also struggling.
“With Wash. U.’s focus and intention to take care of the student body, I think that sometimes the counselors that are doing the mental health care get lost in the fray,” Fields said. “Counselors are typically people who like a lot of social interaction and they got into the field for that interaction with people. It’s a lot harder when you’re dealing with these types of emotional issues and you’re not getting the same type of or same quality of interaction with the clients you’re working with.”
Outside of University-sponsored mental health resources, Fields suggests students should practice self-care using a variety of different methods.
“One of the most important things I try to preach to people is that there are various levels to self-care,” Fields said. He emphasized the importance of a healthy diet and eating habits, sleep hygiene, exercise and hydration. “Those basics really set the foundation for your ability to cope at a higher level.”
Carpenter also recommended that in addition to structuring their days and regularly exercising, students should dedicate time every day to staying in touch with family and friends.
“It’s important for people to be proactive about staying connected to people in their life.” Carpenter said. “Family members, friends here at Wash. U., friends who aren’t here at Wash. U., staying in touch with those people you know and care about and even using this as an opportunity to reach out and join a new club or find some new friends.”