On March 11, 2020, as I was sitting in my math class, I received a notification from the University of Michigan. It was an email letting me know that classes were canceled for the rest of the week. This cancellation was due to the fact that COVID-19 had just reached the Southeastern Michigan area and the University’s administration needed time to determine a plan of action. I walked out of Angell Hall relieved that I would have a couple of days off, but nervous about what the future would hold. I waited in anticipation for more communication from the University, which did not take as long as I expected. Within a few days, the University’s administration sent a follow-up announcement encouraging us to evacuate campus as quickly as possible and to bring our belongings with us.
After spending the next 48 hours packing all of our belongings, many of my peers and I left campus with an increasing awareness of the severity of this virus and what was to come of it. As students, we were constantly receiving information from both professors and news outlets about the virus’s many symptoms, its infectious nature and its possible origins, both worldwide and in the United States. As the pandemic continued, more information became available regarding the physical toll the virus could have on those around us. The COVID-19 trackers published by a number of states offered a glimpse of the magnitude of infections, hospitalizations and fatalities caused by the virus. For states with efficient reporting systems, these trackers were updated either daily or multiple times a week to reflect the situation in real-time. Additionally, information on the demographics of the spread of the disease affirmed that Black and brown people were bearing the majority of this disease’s burden.
The information being reported during the first few months of the pandemic regarding the nature and spread of the virus painted a detailed picture of the virus’s threat to the overall health of the nation. The progression of the pandemic, however, didn’t just present a threat to the physical safety of many, but to our mental well-being as well. By the time summer came around, the nation was already well into an enforced lockdown that made it difficult to socialize with those outside of one’s household. This, along with the fear that arises from having the presence of a deadly virus as the backdrop for our lives, made it so that the emotional well-being of many was arguably in danger.
For myself, this period could be described as having a seesaw effect. I constantly went back and forth between cherishing the blessings that were still existent in my life and struggling with the anxiety that came with the pandemic. It drained me. Because of this, by the time the next school year commenced in August 2020, it became abundantly clear that preserving our physical health under these conditions was only part of the battle. The toll that the pandemic was having on our mental health was undeniable, and many of us were not prepared for it.
By the time I had this revelation, I had already been thrust into the uncharted territory of virtual schooling. Every weekday, I sat in one of the white chairs in my dad’s office, attending classes through my laptop screen. In this makeshift classroom, I had many conversations with my public health classmates about the unprecedented nature of this current moment in our academic journey. Being actively present in classes while dealing with the looming anxieties that come with dealing with the realities of a worldwide health scare was a new challenge for us as students. It felt like during this school year was it more common for students to have to balance completing assignments with dealing with the grief that comes with losing loved ones. This challenge, as we would learn through our classes, was being experienced nationwide. A study published in June of this year reports that depression and anxiety both peaked amid the pandemic. As a result, students had a harder time finishing the semester. Additionally, aside from class, my classmates and I lamented over having to go through life physically separated from our respective communities. It was, overall, a mentally exhausting time. Other research studies confirmed this, saying that college students across the country reported a spike in loneliness, and this increase has been attributed to the isolation brought on by the pandemic.
Over the next eighteen months, a number of advancements related to the virus came to fruition: the vaccine was finalizedand distributed, fatal cases declined and there was a positive progression in the state of the pandemic overall. It was these wins that made institutions across the nation — including the University of Michigan — comfortable with returning to an in-person environment for the fall of 2021. Fortunately, the University’s announcement of a return to in-person learning came with a plan to implement a number of safety precautions. Among these precautions was requiring masks in University buildings and making the ResponsiBLUE health screening a requirement to gain entry to certain buildings on campus, including all dining halls. Requiring all students and staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine has been another mandate (except for those who meet one of the University’s approved exemption reasons), making it so that 96% of students, 95% of faculty and 85% of staff are vaccinated. These provisions have made it so that students’ transition back to a traditional college experience is a safer process, especially compared to the unsuccessful efforts of the previous year.
Despite these efforts, improving physical safety is only addressing half the battle. Students are coming to campus with the mental baggage that the past eighteen months have brought on: grief, fear, loneliness and more. The fact that the pandemic is not over further intensifies these issues. The even more potent and contagious Delta variant has now become the predominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States, contributing to an increase in hospitalizations, especially in unvaccinated people. And while vaccination rates at the University are high, the low vaccination rates in the U.S., as well as vaccine inaccessibility in other countries, means that the same sense of security is not present in the many communities that we all come from. Despite this, the University has not implemented extra provisions to account for the spike in anxiety, depression and grief that exists amongst its student body. These provisions could include, for example, increased staffing of mental health resources and programming on campus. This void begs the question: Will the University be successful in supporting the mental health of its students throughout the year?
Given that no new mental well-being measures have been established, the potential answer to this question lies within the resources that have been in effect since before the pandemic. The largest and most widely known of these is the Counseling and Psychological Services program that is offered in the Michigan Union. This office offers short-term counseling, mental health workshops, a 24-hour emergency hotline, screenings for a wide range of conditions and a community provider database. Additionally, within CAPS, there is a specific offering called the Wolverine Support Network, which is a series of student-led mental health support groups. This resource, which is the main source of mental health support advertised on campus, provides students with the option of a mental health professional at a physically accessible location, a sense of community centered around mental well-being, immediate help for crises and support in finding long-term care. On the other hand, CAPS often lacks the capacity to deal with the caseload of tens of thousands of students, making it so that students have to wait long periods of time to secure an appointment.
Furthermore, their model for providing acute care with the expectation that additional counseling will be obtained elsewhere is inequitable, as it restricts low-income students struggling with their mental well-being from adequate care. Given the great economic disparity amongst the University’s student population, this is a grave concern. Approximately half of U-M students come from household incomes within the top 10%, where only 3.6% of students come from the bottom 20%. This leaves a number of students unaccounted for in terms of being wholly healthy.
While the University instituted a number of safety precautions in an attempt to keep us physically well on campus, the precautions are limited to matters of physical safety, leaving our emotional well-being unaccounted for. Given that school incites significant mental challenges for students under normal circumstances, the mental health of students during a pandemic should be handled with an extra sense of care. A more equal focus on mental health in relation to physical health is essential in order to promote a more holistic sense of well-being that is needed for students to be successful. In order for this balance to be achieved, the University will need to establish a system that allows students of all backgrounds to receive affordable long-term mental health care. Hopefully, this will become a priority of the University.
MiC Columnist Kayla Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.