SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — March 2020 will forever live in infamy as the month when the coronavirus upended the lives of billions of people across the globe. For 2020 high school seniors, COVID-19 restrictions meant no Prom, no spring athletic seasons, and of course, an abrupt switch to remote learning.
As the pandemic continued to wreak havoc across the country, most of these students started their college careers online, for better or worse. April Santana, a sophomore at Syracuse University, said she found remote learning to be much less stressful than the classes she took in high school before the pandemic.
“There were more open-note exams and that made everything 100-percent easier because I didn’t have to study,” Santana said.
Many 2020 high school graduates are now sophomores and are finally getting that normal college experience of taking in-person classes. But it has not been easy. Santana noted her attention span is not what it used to be.
“Just being in-person and having to pay attention for an hour and 20 minutes without a break or anything, that’s been super difficult,” Santana said.
Santana is not the only one struggling. During his second semester on campus, Walter Ellsworth, a sophomore at Georgia Tech, was not only dealing with the culture shock of returning to in-person classes, but also a nagging medical issue significantly affecting his physical health.
“Trying to juggle more advanced college classes when there’s harder things going on and you’re pushed to separate yourself from other people, it definitely didn’t make everything easier,” Ellsworth said. “It made everything a lot more difficult, and it definitely made me a lot more of a sad person than what I used to be.”
Ellsworth said there’s a connection between mental health and academic performance that so many students can relate to.
“I get why a lot of young people feel hopeless at times when they feel like they’ve fallen so far behind, when things look really grim for their future, because sometimes the future looks like it’s irreparable, like there’s no way to fix their current situation,” Ellsworth said.
According to Mental Health America, suicide is still the second leading cause of death of youth ages 10 to 24. Whitney Closson, family education specialist at the Mental Health Association in New York State, said the stigma surrounding mental health continues to keep young people, including college students, from seeking help.
“Unfortunately, anything kind of above the head has this or above the shoulders has this stigma around it, like don’t talk about it don’t ask about it, sort of thing,” Closson said.
Closson said it can be very difficult for students to ask for help in a fast-paced, cutthroat environment where not being “okay” is considered a weakness. But taking that first step can make all the difference.
“Asking for help it’s not, it doesn’t have to be something that people go through alone, I think is really the message I hope people understand,” Closson said.
In response to ongoing mental health concerns, Closson said colleges are attempting to staff up student health services and create a more welcoming environment.
“Making sure that the counseling centers are warm and inviting and that the staff are pleasant, and that the experience is positive, so when students do go they’re likely to come back, because we know that first experience is so important and we want to make sure that experience is positive for people so they can continue to do the work,” Closson said.
While strengthening student health services is crucial, sophomore Walter Ellsworth says support from professors is just as important. Ellsworth said he found his professors to be sympathetic and forgiving as he struggled to navigate his classes with so much going on in his personal life.
“They just gave me extensions on my assignments, they gave me times that I could call them for office hours and extra office hours if I needed help because I was falling behind and they told me extra lesson plans that I could look at for stuff that I didn’t fully understand,” Ellsworth said. “Them giving me extra time and them understanding that I wanted to do the work was a huge thing.”
Despite efforts to provide help, the stigma continues to leave many students hesitant to take advantage of them. Ellsworth said one of his peers at Georgia Tech took her own life before reaching out for help after the pressures of the pandemic and advanced classwork at this top school got to be too much.
“If you fall behind it feels incredibly overwhelming. You feel like the world is crashing around you and you can’t claw your way out,” Ellsworth said. “I sympathize a lot with that feeling and I empathize a lot with her.”
While this case is extreme, it’s another example of the pressure some college students are feeling these days, as they try to adjust to being back in the classroom, where workloads are usually higher than they are for online courses. Colleges are trying to provide whatever help students need to avoid being overcome by the transition—but many students indicate they are still stressed beyond anything they’ve ever experienced.