By Lucy Ruscitto | Staff Writer
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its global spread and as Baylor University continues to enact policies to keep its students and staff as safe as possible, other aspects of students’ health — such as mental well-being — continue to be affected.
In a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, signs of depression and anxiety are prevalent in one-third of Americans, and these rates have been since boosted COVID-19’s existence.
Dr. Michael Myers is a staff psychiatrist with the Department of Health Services at Baylor University, as well as an American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology Diplomate. He said that unfortunately, he has seen evidence of the increase in anxiety and depression rates at his Baylor practice.
“Some students who I treat, who were not previously depressed or anxious, have experienced new symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Myers said. “Some students already struggling with such symptoms have experienced a worsening of those problems during the pandemic.”
Myers said that some anxiety would be a typical response to the stressors of the pandemic; however, these stressors have become so severe for some due to the length of the pandemic that their conditions have become “excessive.”
Dr. Alisha Wray, clinical assistant professor and psychology clinic director in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said that she thinks that conclusive research on the long-term effects of the pandemic may not be available for a while.
“I think we’re unfortunately still in the process of learning exactly what a pandemic with the scope of COVID could have on our psychological health. The other piece of that is, we know from research that anything that is unpredictable or uncontrollable is highly stressful,” Wray said.
Wray said she too thinks that due to the pandemic’s length, it has taken a tougher toll than previous more isolated pandemics, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic.
“So much of COVID has been out of our control for … a longer period of time … so it makes sense that this is just a really challenging time for people,” she said.
Wray said she acknowledges the importance of COVID-19 preventative strategies in battling the pandemic, such as social distancing and isolation, but also the obstructive consequences they can have.
“Social support is really important for our quality of life, but it’s also an important way that we sort of mitigate against or buffer ourselves against the negative impact of stressors,” Wray said.
According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a Brigham Young University professor of psychology and neuroscience, social isolation can have extreme negative effects on one’s mental health, and has the potential to be twice as dangerous to one’s mental and physical well-being as obesity.
Myers said that side effects of social deprivation can also contribute to the worsening or development of a condition like depression or anxiety, as well as throw off people’s comfortable routine clocks.
“Isolation leads to increased feelings of depression, hopelessness and anxiety in some people,” Myers said. “In the case of some individuals working or studying from home, the loss of daily regimented schedules, routines and required physical presence in locations outside the home has resulted in disrupted sleep/wake cycles and decreased efficiency and productivity.”
Myers also said that less outside exposure can lead some to being less physically active, as well as cause irregular sleeping cycles, and that to cope with this lost sense of routine, some have turned to substance abuse — ironically worsening symptoms.
“There have been studies, for example, among college students coming out that were tracking with mobile sensing data and self-report mental health data, before COVID and then after COVID. They’ve seen an increase in things like stress, anxiety, depression, and there’s a decrease in things like physical activity,” Wray said in reference to a study done by Jeremy F. Huckins, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychological and Brain Science at Dartmouth College.
For the American college-age population specifically, Myers said he believes the virus’s effects have burdened them in terms of grief of loved ones, the lack of routine, high uncertainty, as well as the already stressful aspect of preparing future plans for their higher education and careers.
Both Wray and Myers said they recommend Baylor students and college students everywhere develop and create new routines for themselves to establish a sense of normalcy.
“Try to find solutions … to help increase your sense of routine and make sure that you’re imposing a structure into your day, but then also finding ways to stay connected to friends, family or a sense of community, whether that be through phone calls or FaceTime,” Wray said.
Myers said he also suggests that students attempt to limit their social media usage and news consumption, as sometimes they do nothing except provide further stress without offering a solution. Also, being a friend to others can provide a healthy distraction for those affected by mental hardship.
Wray said that if students do wish to stay updated with the daily happenings of the news, to make they know their limits, and to make sure the information they are pulling is from trusted resources.
“The Baylor University Counseling Center is a great resource for individuals … They’re offering services [for those] feeling like they’re in the midst of a crisis, having thoughts of suicide,” Wray said. “For students who are starting to see an impact of the stress on their academic performance, OALA is another great resource.”
Myers said that a residence hall chaplain, a professor one trusts, one’s Community Leader or the Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center if substance abuse has become an issue, are all great places to get help as well.
For those struggling to take the first step in bettering their mental health, Wray said she completely understands the fear of therapy and sharing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings with a stranger. She said she suggests that students ask their friends or family members who have gone through treatment from a mental-health expert what their experience was like.
“Remember that you are not alone during this unusual, uncomfortable, and at times, tragic situation. Helpful people and resources are available, so please seek out help if you think you might need it,” Myers said. “Depression and anxiety are experienced by many students during this extremely difficult time, and it is important for students to know they are not alone.”