How COVID-19 and virtual learning are hammering Stanford students’ mental health

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Before the coronavirus outbreak, students could count on spending their days following a mapped-out schedule, with social time woven in between classes and meetings. 

Now, with the shift to virtual instruction, some students are feeling the weight of less structure and more time alone. Some students said that social isolation has been taking a toll on their mental health, exacerbating conditions like eating disorders or anxiety. Others reported being unable to focus in classes, with their academics taking a hit. 

“The continuation of a lack of structure has been really tough,” Bella Meyn ’23 said. “Especially considering that only 1 of my classes was synchronous, I often felt like I had nowhere to be or go and had to do everything on my own.” 

The pandemic has contributed to an increase in depression and anxiety in college students across the country, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. In one study, seven out of 10 students reported that they were struggling with mental health, with 45% indicating they felt more stress than usual. Stanford students are not exempt, and experts say that the shift to learning online only exacerbates loneliness and stress. 

“For all students, the loss of interactive learning and support that happens organically when students can connect in person with classmates and friends has posed another challenge to their mental health,” said Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) director Bina Patel. 

According to Patel, although there were fewer students on campus during the 2020 summer term, CAPS saw a significant increase in appointments compared with the 2019 summer term. 

Several students cited the social isolation that comes with distanced learning as a significant challenge to their mental health. 

“We’re not really meant to be by ourselves this long, especially for frosh and new graduate students who are coming into this lifestyle,” said second-year communication Ph.D. student Angela Lee. “It’s really a grieving process that makes it harder to attend classes and dedicate yourself to your work.” 

A sophomore student from New York who asked to be anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this topic said that it’s been challenging for her to lose classroom communities. 

“It’s easy to feel disconnected from my professors and classmates, and I definitely feel less of a sense of community in the class that I’m taking than I would than if I was taking a class on campus,” the student said. “You can’t talk to people while leaving class together anymore — it’s those small interactions that we’re missing that give you a sense of community.” 

Isabel Gormley ’24 told The Daily that along with social isolation comes “FOMO” or the fear of missing out. Even though Gormley is living with friends this quarter, she worries that she is missing out on valuable college experiences and finds it difficult to see other students having fun together on social media. 

“You see these people who are living together in a house, and you get that heightened sense of isolation and FOMO — it can be really damaging to your mental health,” Gormley said. 

Weiland Health Initiative Director Inge Hansen added that this isolation can be magnified for international students

“For many international students, social isolation is exacerbated by living in different time zones from the one Stanford operates on,” Hansen said. “This time mismatch makes it that much harder to connect socially, and also impacts well-being in other ways: having to attend class or take an exam at 1 a.m,, for instance.” 

Students also said they were experiencing more anxiety while attempting to learn online, both about finishing coursework and about making friends and maintaining relationships outside of class. 

“It’s hard to tell who is going to be your friend when you’re on campus,” Gormley added. “It’s stressful to navigate how to make friends and first impressions over Zoom.”  

The sophomore student said communicating with peers online added another layer of stress due to the different medium of communication.

“Anxiety about friendships comes up a lot because no matter what effort you make to FaceTime people, it’s not the same as being in person,” the student said. 

According to Patel, students are reporting significant problems with focus, concentration and Zoom fatigue.

Meyn said finding motivation is difficult: “It’s harder with less structure and it ends up being more on you.” 

Lee, the Ph.D student, added that she felt dissonance between the outside world and his classes.

“There is a feeling that the world is so different, and that there’s a lot of bad things happening, so sometimes it feels weird to have life continue as normal,” Lee said. “There’s a tension between how much are we supposed to adjust and habituate to this new way of living and do our school work, versus actively recognizing how weird and difficult a lot of this for us.” 

For some, these stressors have been compounded by difficulties in accessing academic support. Meyn said Zoom office hours did not have the same level of education and support as in-person sessions with professors.

Lee added, “I myself depended so much on being able to ask a question or pop into someone’s office and talk, and it’s a lot harder now — that social collaborative working ethic is really reduced.” 

While fall quarter is the second academic term to be administered online, it is the first to adopt a regular grading scheme with a satisfactory/no credit option. Amid school closures and lockdowns, administrators decided to offer spring term on a universal satisfactory/no credit basis. Some students said they are feeling the weight of this change. 

“In Spring there were decreased expectations because everything was satisfactory/no credit,” an undergraduate student who asked to be anonymous for privacy reasons said. “This quarter, any ease of expectations is gone, and students are not taking classes satisfactory/no credit even when their mental health is impacted. There’s an expectation that students should have adjusted to the pandemic and it creates a huge amount of academic pressure.” 

Patel said she has recommended students scale down expectations for productivity given all of these very real stressors. She cited an analogy that CAPS psychiatrist Kevin Lee uses. 

“If you are holding a 50-pound weight while telling yourself it is 5 pounds, it can feel much different than acknowledging that you are holding 50 pounds,” Lee says.  “Acknowledging the weight can lighten it.”

For some students who struggle with disordered eating, that weight is especially heavy this quarter. 

Psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Antonio Hardan, who specializes in adolescent psychiatry, said there has been an uptick in eating disorder cases in the months since the pandemic began, citing research that reveals there has been a 78% increase in messages sent to the National Eatigng Disorder Association Helpline since March. 

The student from New York said that the isolation and flexibility that come with the pandemic have made eating more challenging for her. 

“Not having a scheduled lunch period or dinner where eating was kind of a social thing that you did with friends has been really difficult,” she said. “If you were going to eat with friends on campus, you were much more encouraged to eat well and make it a part of your schedule.” 

Gormley, the frosh student who talked about social isolation, said the pandemic has also worsened her eating patterns, as she suffered from disordered eating for a couple of years.  

“[The pandemic] exacerbates any mental health issue because you have all of this time where you’re by yourself and you have to just think,” Gormley added. “I was hoping this was going to get better in college but so much has changed from what we expected college to look like.” 

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