The COVID-19 pandemic has persisted for more than 18 months, and its effect on mental health continues to rise.
A recent study published by Science Direct revealed an increase in depressive symptoms in U.S. adults from 27.8% in 2020 to 32.8% in 2021. Depression, anxiety and stress impact cognition and academic performance, which experts say explains why the transition back to in-person learning for many college students can feel awkward, difficult and draining.
While the pandemic, at large, is out of individual control, people can control how they cope with it. Using cognitive strategies, emotional coping skills and mindfulness-based exercise can make the transition back to in-person learning a smoother one.
“There’s been a college student mental health crisis over the past 10 years, and it seems like the pandemic has exacerbated that,” said Scott Kadera, a psychologist and counseling manager at Salt Lake Community College.
Kadera said the need for mental health services has increased since the pandemic, although utilization of services at SLCC has dropped according to their records. The Center for Health and Counseling, Kadera said, is providing more counseling sessions to fewer clients than before the pandemic.
“There are more people in distress,” he noted. ”A confounding factor is that our enrollment dropped, so there is less demand. If we had the same [enrollment], my impression is that more would be coming in.”
He said depression can cause decreased energy, motivation, attention and resilience. When starting from a place of impaired function, returning to activities we once did can be difficult, even if it’s a positive change.
“There have been a lot of studies in the last few years that demonstrate when a system is stressed or under a lot of pressure, there can be physiological changes to the brain and it has a significant impact on an individual’s function,” said Mark Fox, a speech-language pathologist specializing in cognitive rehabilitation at Intermountain Healthcare.
This, Fox said, explains why the transition back to in-person learning has been difficult for so many college students. Isolation has caused social skills to atrophy when it comes to interpreting environmental stimuli, body language, social cues and complex environments. He noted people might feel awkward when socializing in-person, distracted by the unfamiliar environment around them, and feel much more drained at the end of the day compared to interacting virtually.
“As people start re-engaging, there’s going to be discomfort and some feelings of, ‘What am I doing?’” Fox explained. “Communication is a skill, and social interaction has a myriad of components. Just like any other activity, if you don’t practice it to a certain extent, you can lose it.”
When operating at home in a familiar space, there’s less of an impact on body systems. In-person classes bring along outside hurdles, he noted.
“There are a lot of things to navigate, a lot of things that I do not have control over,” Fox said. “This can result in a higher rate of anxiety because there is less control.”
Being physically on campus requires more energy and engagement with surroundings, as well as thinking about social responses in real-time. When communicating via text or email, there is an opportunity to spend time on what we are saying and perfect it before hitting the send button.
“It gives a sense of distance when you communicate virtually. In person, we have to manage our body language,” Fox said. “It’s spontaneous communication, which is more difficult.”
Under conditions that cause the brain to be stressed or alerted, the brain hyper-activates primitive portions of the brain which are about survival, fight and flight, Fox explained.
Being in primitive states makes it harder to think, pay attention and process information. If the nervous system is constantly activated like this, it affects cognition and executive function, leading to struggles with academic performance and anything involving cognition.
“A lot of the things that stimulate primitive responses aren’t necessarily life-threatening,” Fox said. “We have to learn to be able to go through a process of using our higher-level cognitive functions to decide the stimulus is or isn’t something to worry about.”
He said things like stress about school, relationships and the constant stimulation from technology can activate these responses. For higher-level cognitive functions to work, the nervous system needs to be calm. Using strategies to consciously plan tasks can help with the decision-making process.
Externalizing executive functions like using lists, breaking tasks into small steps, planning out the day, and using a monthly and weekly planner, help take the cognitive load off the brain and conserve valuable energy that can be used elsewhere.
Movement and mindfulness-based activities can help teach the nervous system to calm, so a person can respond to a situation, instead of reacting. It also helps shift the mindset to focus on what is controllable, instead of what isn’t.
“Mind-body exercise helps put a pause on your thoughts and consciously choose a different direction to go in,” said Paula Nielson-Williams, SLCC recreation manager.
The connection between the mind and body is distinct, and one has a great effect on the other, Nielson-Williams said.
“We know the body is very responsive to emotions,” Nielson-Williams said. “If the body is moving and healthy, it can help the mind be clear. It’s an infinite circle of mind-body connection. One affects the other, and vice versa.”
While these exercises can help you cope, it’s important to know when to seek professional help, Kadera noted.
“People think they need to have extreme symptoms in order to seek help,” he said. “But if you’re just unhappy and it’s not how you want to be feeling, then that’s a good reason to come in and get some services.”