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Doctors & Advice, Family Health

College Amid the Pandemic: How Can Students Cope?

BY KATHY KATELLA November 10, 2020

Yale experts provide eight ways young people can stay resilient during this challenging time.

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging everyone, but students in college are facing a particular set of uncertainties. Yale experts provide tips that can help with coping and managing life in difficult times.

Photo by Getty Images

Valerie Pavilonis, a junior at Yale, couldn’t go to Washington D.C. for her summer internship because of the pandemic, so she did the work sitting on her bed in Chicago. In September, she returned to New Haven and a semester without the usual events and parties. She could make new friends if they were outdoors with masks. A high point was the socially distanced gatherings one professor hosted in his backyard on Friday afternoons, weather permitting.

“It’s kind of like living in a warped version of what we expected,” says Pavilonis, a Yale Daily News editor. “When you think of college, you think of this colorful kind of life—going out, parties, cool classes—and that has very much faded right now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging everyone, but students in high school and college are facing a particular set of uncertainties, says Pavilonis, who ended up writing about the first reported COVID-19 case on campus after students returned. This year, many internships and other opportunities have been cancelled (Pavilonis was lucky). So have proms, graduations, and sporting events. Many freshmen learned their fall classes would be remote—or they went to school in person not knowing how long that would last. Others worry about what kind of job market they have ahead of them.

“These young people are at an age and phase of life where their social life is the primary factor that defines and guides them,” says Paula Zimbrean, MD, a Yale Medicine psychiatrist, who is concerned about feelings of isolation in young age groups. It’s a time when gaining confidence about making life decisions and forming intimate relationships is most important, she says.

When you think of college, you think of this colorful kind of life—going out, parties, cool classes—and that has very much faded right now. Valerie Pavilonis, a junior at Yale, on college life amid the pandemic

Many young people worry about mental health—rising numbers were struggling with problems like anxiety and depression long before the pandemic. A National College Health Assessment in 2017 showed 40% of college students reported being so depressed it was too difficult to function and 60% reported overwhelming anxiety. That same year, 13% of U.S. teens ages 12 to 17 said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the preceding 12 months, up from 8% in 2007.

Laurie Santos, PhD, is a psychology professor at Yale who teaches "The Science of Well-Being" on Coursera and this year produced a video called, "Happiness Homeroom: Well-Being Strategies for High School Students," which also addresses college-age concerns. She says COVID-19 has heaped on new stresses (and losses) regardless of whether a young person has felt the impact of the virus directly, such as with the illness or death of a loved one.

But, there is a flip side, she adds. “There is a kind of togetherness through bad events—like a horrible snowstorm—and everybody comes together. I feel like they’re bonding even more over this," Santos says. "They’re all going through this strange experience together.”

Strategies for staying resilient

Santos and Dr. Zimbrean offered several strategies to help young people tap into their own resilience. “Happiness matters,” says Santos, who offers strategies for achieving happiness that she says are based on scientific evidence that has shown feelings of well-being to be a tonic not just for mental health, but also for physical health. “This a time to use all the coping skills we have in our toolbox,” Dr. Zimbrean says.

1. Maintain friendships

“Every study I’ve ever heard of suggests that social people tend to be happier,” says Santos. Of course, during the pandemic, large gatherings and parties have been shown to be “super-spreader events” for the virus. An alternative “might look like calling one friend on the phone—someone you are really close with,” Santos says. Some psychologists recommend forming “pods” with a few trusted friends and having discussions with them about their feelings on keeping a distance and wearing masks, as well as quarantining and testing if they have traveled.

It can be challenging, says Pavilonis. “My own example is when we had a lot of really cool stories and breaking news at the newspaper. Usually, if that were happening, we would be running around, getting food, and playing music. But now the energy of that kind of situation is removed.”

At the same time, she believes there are positives to careful socializing. “It is kind of nice because you have to be a lot more intentional. You plan specific times. There also is a lot to be said for typical hallway interactions or just seeing people in the dining halls,” she says. But Pavilonis adds a note of caution. “I think you can trust your closest friends, but I would not invite a friend of a friend of a friend to come over.”

2. Be mindful about social media

If you use Instagram, Snapchat, or another platform to socialize, remember that the quality of time spent is what matters, and you can check this by paying attention to how you feel afterwards, Santos says. You might find that casually scrolling through your feed leaves you feeling depleted, but an online conversation with someone who you give your full attention to makes you happy. 

3. Mark milestones

Celebrate proms and graduations, and mark birthdays even if you can’t invite more than a few people, Dr. Zimbrean says. “I wouldn’t postpone these celebrations. Find safe and creative ways to mark these events, because they are important. If it’s a graduation, go to the campus and take a walk, and take a graduation picture that you can cherish later. For the prom, dress up, do a fashion show," she says. "Years from now we will look back and say what a unique prom photo that was.”

4. Date (carefully) if you feel comfortable

Tinder and other dating apps have reported more usage in recent months, not less. Dr. Zimbrean says it’s possible that Zoom dates and masks might lead to young people spending more time building trust with another person than they would have otherwise. “There’s still a world where people can get to know each other, but more gradually, and that could be interesting,” she says.

5. Make peace with a new learning environment

Many old routines are gone. So, if you are learning remotely, create new ones—things you do at the same time every day, such as lunch or exercise breaks, Santos says. “We are creatures of habit, and routines make us feel good and help with uncertainty.” If you are studying at home, find a spot in the house, if possible, that is physically separate from where you do other things, she says. “Don’t multi-task. It doesn’t help with your learning, and it doesn’t help with your well-being.”

6. Hedonic adaptation

This is a psychology term that means no matter how good you feel about getting something you wanted (like a job or relationship), most of the time you’ll ultimately end up where you started emotionally. But data suggests the same thing happens around negative events, too. “We think things are always going to be as bad as they felt the first day they happened. But the data suggests that the magnitude of how bad they are and the expectation of how long they will last are exaggerated in our minds," Santos says. "In other words, things won’t be as bad as you think or for as long as you think.”

7. Stoic challenge

Think of the pandemic as a challenge. “There is a lot we don’t have control over, but we do have control over our reactions to the situation,” says Santos. “We get to determine whether we will say, ‘Woe is me’ or think of it as a game—this is something we didn’t expect in 2020; let’s see if we can get through this in as happy and productive a way as possible.”

8. ‘Post-traumatic growth’

Generations who lived through wars have experienced this phenomenon. “After a crisis—whether it is a personal or a community crisis—people have self-reported increased social connection, gaining a greater sense of meaning, and gaining more resilience,” Santos says. There is a real hope that could happen for this younger generation, she adds. “This is a generation that is going through the same scary experience together, and there is a kind of togetherness that develops through bad events.”

Take care of yourself

Young people need to be careful about COVID-19, just as their parents do. Early in the pandemic, the highest incidence of COVID-19 was among older people, but more recent CDC data shows that most confirmed cases this summer occurred in young adults 20 to 29 years old.

This is one reason why it’s important to take care of your body as well as your mind, says Thomas Murray, MD, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist. Some young people think of themselves as invincible when it comes to physical health and might think COVID-19 won’t cause complications for them, Dr. Murrays says. “And while it’s true that most young people who have been diagnosed have had mild forms of disease, some have had serious symptoms and even died," he says. "Even if you have no symptoms at all, the virus is highly contagious, so if you are infected you may be putting others at risk.”

“We know that the risk mitigation strategies work,” Dr. Murray says. “It starts with wearing masks and social distancing. The reason there are outbreaks across college campuses is failure to do those things.” He says students should be especially wary of “the worst-case scenario,” which is a loud indoor party with drinking, because people take their masks off to drink, and are more likely to lose their inhibitions and ability to make appropriate decisions. “If the music is loud, you have to shout, so if someone has COVID-19, they are going to spread it more rapidly because they are talking louder and shouting or yelling, which is really risky in enclosed spaces,” he says.

Eating nutritious food, exercise, getting adequate sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce stress-related physical symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal complaints, and ward off psychological problems, as well as the risk of complications that can develop with COVID-19, Dr. Murray says. “An unfortunate result of the pandemic is that young people are missing routine doctor appointments, where mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and addiction may be diagnosed, and where they are supported in maintaining healthy habits,” he adds. 

Take mental health seriously—get help if you need it

Mental health diagnoses such as depression or anxiety are very real, too, and anyone who is struggling with a problem that can be treated should seek help, Dr. Zimbrean says. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety that are difficult to control, it’s critical to let go of any thoughts about stigma around mental health and get help, she says.

There are resources available:

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: Call the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline 24/7, 365-day-a-year, for their confidential treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call the confidential toll-free National Suicide Hotline if you are in a crisis at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24/7. If texting is easier, text HOME to 741741. 

Keep your spirits up

Dr. Zimbrean thinks many young people are doing an admirable job. “I know that the Millennials and Gen Zers are very concerned about things,” she says, adding that many have been vocal about their concerns around the coronavirus, as well as social justice issues and climate change. “We can see them being careful and acting responsibly about the pandemic,” she says.

Pavilonis agrees. “It’s so important to recognize that while we’re students, most of us are adults," she says. "It hasn’t been as much fun as it might have been, but many of us are doing a pretty good job to keep our spirits up.”

To learn more, visit Yalemedicine.org.