City or suburb, students’ mental health impacted by lengthy quarantine

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 5:16pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

For the last two months, Business senior Ben Lindau has not seen anyone except his two brothers and parents. 

He was studying abroad in Stockholm, Sweden, when the University of Michigan canceled all study abroad programs and President Donald Trump declared a suspension of all travel from Europe to the United States, except for Americans who had “undergone appropriate screenings.” According to Lindau, he feared he would be stuck abroad, so he flew home the next day.

Back in his hometown of Chicago which, like many areas of the country, was under a stay-at-home order, Lindau’s life was confined to the compact apartment that his family had recently moved into. Over the past two months, Lindau said he has only left his family’s apartment five times, to “go stand outside for 30 minutes.” But he acknowledged that even doing so posed a risk to his health.

“We do have a park we can go to, but in walking there, everything’s so congested that you’re passing a ton of people,” Lindau said. “You’re definitely in close proximity with a lot of people, so it’s difficult to keep the social distance.”

Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, which borders Lindau’s home, has been closed since late March. From his living room window, Lindau said he can see the unoccupied patches of green grass that face a crystal blue Lake Michigan. He said the lake is a sad reminder that he is stuck inside.

The view from Lindau’s living room window shows Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, Belmont Harbor and the icy waters of Lake Michigan. Lindau, of course, can’t access any of them

The view from Lindau’s living room window shows Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, Belmont Harbor and the icy waters of Lake Michigan. Lindau, of course, can’t access any of them Buy this photo
Courtesy of Ben Lindau

“That took away pretty much all of the green space I could use,” Lindau said. “Because they closed down that whole lakefront, I feel like there’s simply nowhere to go.”

Dr. Srijan Sen, an associate professor of psychiatry and molecular and behavioral neuroscience at the University, studies the connections between genes, environment and stress. He commented on the strain that a global pandemic and quarantine can have on one’s mental health.

“It’s a really unusual time for mental health,” Sen said. “We’re still gathering data, but clearly we see a big increase in anxiety and depression, and depending on the situations, loneliness and social isolation.”

Where someone lives, who they live with and how they approach stressful situations all inform their mental health during the pandemic and quarantine, according to Sen. He noted that it’s a largely individualized response.

“It’s a difficult time broadly across all of us in the world at this point,” Sen said. “But it’s definitely going to hit different people differently based on their own situations and personal histories and predispositions.”

Sen said a student stuck inside in a city can be equally as stressed as a student living in an area with lots of nature, but with a strained family relationship.

“What your family life is like — for some people it’s a source of comfort, others it's a source of stress — that really is going to affect the experience of unexpectedly being back home,” Sen said. “There’s socioeconomic components to it, too.”

Lindau said he feels fortunate to have a good relationship with his family and a safe and clean space —  he recognizes it could be much worse. But, Lindau noted his cramped living situation has proved difficult on both his mind and body.

“There were definitely ups and downs (the last two months),” Lindau said. “The only private space I can get is in my room. And sometimes that drives me a little crazy.”

To keep both his physical and mental health in check, Lindau said he turns to exercise, even if he only has a small 5-by-10 foot space to workout in. Since he plays for the U.S. Men’s Paralympic National Soccer Team, he has a strength and conditioning coach who sends him workouts to do.

“I think exercise has been really important,” Lindau said. “(It) is not only good for my body, but also for my mood … The biggest thing that keeps me personally sane is feeling like I accomplished something every day and exercise is definitely a good way to do that.”

He also mentioned that keeping a positive mindset has made the last two months more bearable, and even enjoyable. 

“This is really difficult,” Lindau said. “But it’s more mentally healthy for me to be like, ‘well, at least my family’s happy,’ or ‘at least I’m having a good dinner,’ or ‘at least I can workout in my 5-by-10 space.’”

Sen said a positive mindset can help students cope with anxiety and depression in general, but especially during times of intense stress.

“Focusing on being grateful … not focusing on the negatives or on the things that are hard, but the positives of maybe spending more time with family … or having more free time,” Sen said. “Specifically now, (it) is a really helpful way to frame things and to protect mental health.”

Public Policy senior Michael Ocasio is quarantining in his home on the Northwest side of Chicago and faces many of the same challenges as Lindau. Ocasio discussed the changes that accompanied his recent transition moving home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I am quarantined with my family,” Ocasio said. “Sometimes you can get frustrated, and sometimes you just need your own space. I feel like I have that space — I am not in an apartment, we're in a house. And that’s an advantage.”

Unlike many city dwellers, Ocasio lives in a house with a backyard, but he said the space is still limited. 

“I have a backyard, it’s not huge, but it’s nice to go outside and breathe the fresh air,” Ocasio said. “The park that we usually go to as a family, we have to get in the car and drive there. The parks that are close to us are not that large and are not good for walking around.”

Ocasio stayed in Ann Arbor even after classes were canceled. He said that the abundant green spaces, parks and fresh air in Ann Arbor are better for his mental health. 

“It's like two different worlds for me; Chicago and Ann Arbor, and I definitely feel a lot safer in Ann Arbor,” Ocasio said. “For me, having my own place and (having a place) where I feel more comfortable, where I can walk around freely (is important).”

And as many students have experienced, quarantining with no friends, on-campus activities or schoolwork can leave one feeling bored, drained or unmotivated. Ocasio said it took a toll on his mental health.

.“There's not really much to do, we're still stuck in quarantine … and it has definitely affected my mental health,” Ocasio said.

Sen said a loss of schedule can impact mental health as the habits that come along with our routines — like bed or mealtimes — are often neglected, too. He stressed that even without schoolwork or internship duties, students should aim to wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day, to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm and mood.

He said creating a work routine — along with regular exercise, sleep and social connection — is an important way to maintain positive mental health during quarantine, and will be especially more so if University classes go remote in the fall.

“Planning your life with whatever constraints are there, to try to set up a place in wherever you're living that you're able to concentrate in and focus on classes and work in peace, (that’s important),” Sen said.

But greater than a loss of routine, Ocasio said the hardest part of quarantine for him has been losing his sense of independence moving from his own apartment back into his family home. 

“It was my first year having an apartment and cooking my own meals and everything,” Ocasio said. “Going from the full independence of college to being back under your parents’ rules and house rules is definitely really weird.” 

Still, living at home with not much to do is not fully reminiscent of high school, Ocasio said, because his social circle is confined to his family. 

“It is really weird going back to our high school lifestyle, but it’s kind of different,” Ocasio said. “The things that are nice about high school — like sports and hanging out with your friends — you don’t even have the perks of that.” 

A lack of in-person social connection can hamper one’s mood too, Sen said, so it’s important to keep in touch with friends through other means.

Ocasio said that though the pandemic has presented many challenges, he has been able to spend time reading and learning outside of the traditional classroom. 

“I haven't read for fun since before high school,” Ocasio said. “That's one of the things I have been really grateful that I have had the time to do. Just to (be able to) learn not for grades and credit and someone else's approval and just learning things that I want to learn.”

For some students, quarantine hasn’t meant giving up space and freedom. In fact, it meant the opposite.

Engineering senior Sahana Reddy lives in the small town of St. Joseph, Michigan, which has a population of about 8,000. Michigan has been one of the hardest hit states in the pandemic, and last week Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order through May 28. 

Reddy, who is living at home during quarantine and working remotely for an internship, didn’t express any major differences between now and the other times she’s lived at or visited home. She said her hometown, which borders Lake Michigan and is far from any COVID-19 hotspots, provides a relatively peaceful background to her quarantine. 

“My neighborhood is quiet and we have a lot of trees,” Reddy said. “We live near a lot of parks and the beach (and, though) there are four people quarantining in my house, I feel like I have my own space.”

The beach in St. Joseph, Michigan, near where Reddy is quarantining with her family

The beach in St. Joseph, Michigan, near where Reddy is quarantining with her family Buy this photo
Courtesy of Sahana Reddy

Reddy emphasized her balance of work and other activities while in quarantine and how it has helped her stay productive and focused. 

“I start most days making breakfast and attend the daily meetings for my internship,” Reddy said. “After I'm finished working, I workout and shower. Then, I'll relax and maybe work on a puzzle until dinner time. After dinner, I usually do some yoga with my mom.”

Aside from her remote work, Reddy said quarantining at home has been a way for her to slow down and enjoy more free time outdoors. 

“I don’t think quarantining has had a significant impact on my mental health since I’m able to go out and get fresh air when needed,” Reddy said. “Even though I miss seeing people in person, it has been nice to be at home, slow down more and have more freetime.” 

With a long summer and a potentially remote fall semester stretching before students like Reddy, Lindau and Ocasio, the conversation around students’ mental health and how the University can support them is increasingly important, according to Sen. The University’s Counseling and Psychological Services center is providing resources to help students through the pandemic. However, previous reports highlight overcapacity issues and obstacles including students not feeling comfortable asking for help.Through the upcoming months of social distancing, the responsibility of taking care of students’ mental health may rest on the students themselves, especially for those who don’t suffer from chronic, clinical mental health conditions, according to Sen. He said students should identify and focus on what mental health practices make them feel better, and that this is a process that will vary person by person.

“I think it's figuring out for each individual what the key is for maintaining their wellness and mental health,” Sen said, “and trying to prioritize that as best you can in this really strange and difficult period.” 

Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu and Daily Staff Reporter Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached at mmihaylo@umich.edu