For many, life during the pandemic — which includes being isolated from friends, pondering the uncertainty of the future and hopping from meal to meal without much other structure — is bringing increased anxiety and depression.
More than 3.6 million people worldwide have contracted confirmed cases of COVID-19. While this is a large number, countless more are impacted by feelings of uncertainty and stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, creating a huge impact on mental health as well.
“We’re all living, pretty suddenly, in a drastically changed world,” said campus psychology professor Stephen Hinshaw in an email. “It’s little surprise that, absent the contacts and closeness and support we’re all used to, stress, anxiety, and sadness might well come rushing in.”
COVID-19 impacts everyone
According to campus University Health Services, or UHS, counselor Paige Lee, the difference between physical and mental health is that physical health is often perceived as more legitimate. If someone has a broken arm, they are able to get treatment and help completing their work, Lee added. Because of the stigma around mental health, however, people may stop seeking help when they are struggling emotionally.
“There are ways around a broken arm,” Lee said. “When you have anxiety or depression and its impact is cognitively, emotionally and physically, it’s hard. How do you get around that? It literally just sucks the energy out of you.”
Mental health issues impact people cognitively, resulting in a decreased ability to concentrate and stay motivated, according to Lee. She added that many of her clients have said their mental health issues are debilitating, as they are not doing well, but feel they are just “being lazy” and cannot take time off to focus on their health.
According to campus psychology professor Sonia Bishop, feelings of anxiety and depression will increase the “closer to home” something hits. Early reports from Wuhan, China show that hospital workers who experienced many patients’ deaths have increased anxiety and post-traumatic stress levels.
“One consequence in early days is that (COVID-19) may have felt unreal. People didn’t really believe the risks are as high as what was being said,” Bishop said. “As we start to see more stories of people getting sick or dying in the media, maybe we come to know people ourselves, it’ll change, and we’ll be seeing more reactions of grief or depression.”
According to UHS spokesperson Tami Cate, an additional cause of stress is the feeling of uncertainty, as humans are used to having a routine and the ability to prepare for the future. She added that the negative information overload in the media and the lack of schedules have also exacerbated stress in people who are constantly keeping up with the numbers of infection.
This stress, while natural, may not be healthy, according to Bishop. Stress allows us to respond appropriately to danger by causing our bodies to prioritize cardiovascular activity and accelerate metabolism. It does, however, take away from other needs, such as digestion and long-term concentration, according to Bishop.
“When we have prolonged stress, that is basically a chronic situation. That’s actually not so good for our health because our body can’t go back to its natural baseline,” Bishop said. “We can’t breathe that sigh of relief.”
Constantly adapting to a changing environment can cause people to feel like they have no control over events, such as the spread of COVID-19 or the government’s response, which tends to increase anxiety, according to Lee. She added that people should focus on things they can manage, as having some semblance of control helps alleviate those feelings.
According to Lee, one Chinese international student found the national response to COVID-19 very stress-inducing at the beginning of the pandemic, as she had seen the impact in her home country. She was worried that the United States was not doing enough to stop the spread of the disease and knew she could not do anything to change it.
“We didn’t have a shelter in place. We didn’t have anything going on,” Lee said. “The anxiety, as you can imagine, was really high.”
Being a student during the pandemic
The biggest factor currently causing stress and anxiety in students’ lives is the concern over their health and the well-being of their loved ones, according to ASUC Senator Carolyn Le, whose focuses include student mental wellness. She added that UC Berkeley is already a very stressful environment for many, but COVID-19 has amplified many of the existing stressors students face.
Isolation has disproportionately affected international students, according to Lee, as many have been unable to return home due to entry restrictions. Students are isolated from their families, making it harder to support one another.
This physical distance can be hard to manage as humans are social by nature, Bishop said. She added that humans use touch to receive oxytocin, which is known as the “love chemical” and helps to relieve anxiety.
Bishop added that even people who feel like they do not need as much time with others may actually be getting less socialization than they need.
Although students may be struggling with a lack of in-person interaction, Wesley Lu, campus freshman and member of the ASUC Mental Health Commission, said in an email that this is an especially important time to reach out to friends, and that many people are open to talking supportively, despite being physically isolated.
“Students have been saying that they’ve reached out to people that they hadn’t even talked to for a few years, and that has actually been great,” Lee said. “They’ve been reconnecting with people that they knew from back home — former high school or community college friends.”
Other students are struggling to balance family responsibilities and schoolwork. According to Lee, some students are saying their parents do not understand that they are still full-time students and are expecting them to help out with household chores and watch their siblings. She added that many students have no privacy while doing work, as they may share a room or have to work in the living room with all their family members around.
Campus junior and ASUC Transfer Student Representative-elect Valerie Johnson said, though she has her own space at home, she is still struggling to maintain the same levels of productivity that she had at UC Berkeley because she does not have access to the same spaces and resources on campus.
“While some individuals can create structure and maintain a somewhat decent lifestyle, it may not be the same for other individuals,” Le said in an email. “Being a student is hard enough, but being a student amidst a pandemic is incredibly difficult.”
For transfer students, being away from campus has impacted not only their academic careers, but also their professional ones, according to Johnson.
Transfer students only have a limited time to make connections, network and participate in extracurricular activities at UC Berkeley because they are admitted as juniors. Building relationships takes time and is hard to do virtually because of the “social awkwardness” of going to office hours to network over Zoom, Johnson added.
“We don’t have time to build relationships like freshmen,” Johnson said. “The fact that even any portion of that is no longer available really put transfer students at more of a disadvantage than we already were.”
According to Lee, college is also a time for students to explore their identities without limits. She added that many are exploring their sexualities and religious beliefs away from family expectations.
Suddenly, being at home again has made some students feel like they are in the “restrictive” environment they were in before they left, according to Lee.
“I had a few students who said leaving home was really a big deal for them because they were starting to figure out who they were,” Lee said. “Then, all of a sudden, they went back home, and the family expected them to be the same person they were when they were first living at home. They had to hide parts of themselves.”
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19
Many students who come from low-income families are dealing with financial insecurity, stemming from family members losing their jobs or not being able to work for paychecks. Some students are even using their own financial aids to help their families, according to Lee.
“It’s very different if there’s multiple people in a house with one bathroom, as opposed to if you’re isolating in French chateau. While not many students will have gone back to French chateaus, there are differences in how easy the environments are in regards to studying that people have gone back to,” Bishop said. “It will definitely be more challenging for some than for others.”
COVID-19 has also had a disproportionate impact on people who were already vulnerable to insecurity as a result of economic hardships or preexisting mental health issues. Lee added that for these populations, the lack of “protective factors” such as financial and food security, a solid support system and a stable home environment can heighten feelings of isolation and stress.
Lee added that people with depression have a tendency to withdraw and isolate, so adding physical isolation onto that may cause them to withdraw even more.
Even though the UHS Tang Center has started offering remote counseling services, Lee said the services are not accessible to all students, as some may not have a computer at home or a private space to talk.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, there has also been an increase in racially motivated attacks against Asians, according to Lee. She added that the constant fear and hypervigilance can impact someone’s psychological and emotional health, making them more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
“Speaking from my own experience, even though I know that I am privileged to live in the Bay Area that is ethnically diverse and has a large Asian population, I still have fears that I could be targeted when I venture out in public,” Lee said in an email.
Along with facing prejudice and racism, many Asian and marginalized populations will minimize what they are feeling, according to Lee. She added that many Asian immigrants have told her that because their parents suffered in silence so much while they were growing up, they cannot complain about how they are “just” struggling with school.
Some of the tendencies to minimize mental health have to do with cultural differences as well. While it is unique for all cultures, Lee said, in her family, she was taught not to talk about her problems. She added that for many non-Western cultures, there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, which can prevent people from asking for help.
“The slight changes in my environment, whether it was going to the library to study or going to the gym to physically run away from my problems for an hour, it was how I reduced my stress levels to a manageable level,” Le said in the email. “With COVID-19, students with existing mental health concerns have to find activities or methods to manage their mental health concerns under the circumstances, which can be very difficult to do.”
According to Cate, acknowledging the worries that people are facing is an important aspect of self-care because feelings of stress and anxiety are valid. She added that those struggling should reach out and talk to others who might be feeling similarly, as nobody has gone through the unique stressors COVID-19 has created before.
Cate added that by taking care of physical health needs, it is easier to mitigate stress from COVID-19.
“Be kind to yourself: While this can be a wonderful time to try new hobbies, read, exercise, and give back, it’s also 100% okay if you aren’t,” said Daniella Ivanir, campus freshman and member of the ASUC Mental Health Commission, in an email. “Avoid putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, we are going through enough!”