By Jasmine Gallup
High school seniors are facing a particularly difficult transition to college this fall after more than a year living with the coronavirus pandemic.
During the past year of virtual learning, social isolation “fueled increases in anxiety and depression,” said Ryan McGraw, a counselor at Chapel Hill High School.
“Some students already vulnerable experienced a significant downward spiral in mental health throughout the pandemic,” he added.
The number of youth and young adults struggling with diagnosable mental health issues has grown in recent years. In 2019, major depressive episodes among children ages 12-17 peaked at 15.7% nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those numbers were similar among young adults ages 18-25 at 15.2%.
In North Carolina, 22.6% of people ages 18-34 were diagnosed with a depressive disorder as of 2019. Among other age groups, percentages were lower, sometimes significantly.
The coronavirus pandemic not only worsened diagnosable mental illnesses, but also situational anxiety and depression, which is relatively normal when people face big changes in their life. During COVID-19, children ages 11-17 were more likely than any other age group to note moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. Among all those who noted such symptoms, 70% reported that loneliness or isolation contributed to their mental health issues.
Virtual education may have left students less prepared for the demands of college, McGraw said. Missing senior year didn’t just mean missing traditional milestones like prom, but also being deprived of the chance to take on more responsibility through things like working or owning a car.
“The coronavirus pandemic robbed many of our seniors of the typical experiences that help to foster and establish work/life patterns,” McGraw said. “Unfortunately, most of our recent graduates experienced a senior year with considerable upheaval. As our academic year was predominantly conducted remotely, seniors were deprived of those timeless milestones that help prepare for life in college and beyond.”
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, director of Student Wellness Dean Blackburn is taking extra steps this year to ensure incoming freshmen know how to get help if they need it. Blackburn said staff are anticipating higher anxiety levels among students as they face yet another new experience with college after already having their senior years upended.
“(We’re) really trying to think about, from a proactive standpoint, how do we provide our students enough information and resources up front,” he said, “Knowing some are ready to absorb that right now … and some not until three or four weeks in, when the reality of the experience becomes more apparent to them.”
The coronavirus pandemic has raised awareness of mental health issues, but many young adults may still not be aware of the risk mental illness poses or may not think it will happen to them, Blackburn said. Diagnosable mental health disorders often become apparent during ages 14-24.
“I don’t think that’s at the front of the average student’s mind,” Blackburn said. “Often they wait too long before they seek support because they aren’t expecting it and they aren’t sure why others seem to be okay.”
The key to making sure students get the help they need is encouraging everyone to look out for one another, Blackburn said. While a student struggling with depression may not recognize the severity of it, friends on the lookout for danger signs can intervene.
“We really try to talk about the bystander impact,” Blackburn said. “The idea that Tar Heels take care of Tar Heels. If you have a friend that you see struggling, please remind them that this happens, normalize it for them, encourage them to get help.”
Research shows that building support systems among students can help mitigate mental health issues, Blackburn said. Building those connections will be important among sophomore students as well, since they entered college as virtual learners.
“This is an unusual year for them too. Many of them have spent the last year learning remotely, from home,” Blackburn said. “We are doing our best to really reach out to first-year and returning sophomores in very similar ways, to say, here’s opportunities to get engaged, to connect with campus in both the physical and social, residential and academic ways.”
As much as the pandemic has created extra struggles for students, however, it’s also taught them the importance of self-care. Open discussion about isolation, social anxiety and depression has created an opportunity to “normalize human emotions,” Blackburn said.
“I think the pandemic has created a level playing field that allows us all to say, ‘Even as a strong person with strong resiliency skills, I need other people, I need to talk about this, I need to connect,’” he said. “If we can take a lesson out of the pandemic, it’s, ‘Let’s be open-minded and open-hearted with each other and connect on deeper levels.’”
If you or anyone you know is struggling, please reach out and seek help.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline