UC Davis-led surveys and undergraduates’ experiences give insight into students’ mental health challenges throughout the pandemic
By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — email@example.com
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many people’s stress levels, but even as the world transitions back to life in person, the additional stress of the pandemic — and associated burnout that many have felt — remains prevalent.
When COVID-19 first became prevalent in the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were introduced, many aspects of daily life changed, altering behavior and well-being in addition.
According to a survey from the UC Davis Student Health and Well-Being Data, conducted in spring 2021, the number of undergraduate students who reported either stress, anxiety, sleep difficulties or depression that resulted in a negative impact on their academics all increased from 2019 reports. Another study conducted by UC Davis Health Education and Promotion in spring 2021 found that approximately nine out of every 10 UC Davis students reported that the pandemic increased their stress levels.
In addition to the surveys conducted by various student health groups on campus, researchers in the psychology and human ecology departments on campus have also conducted studies on the effects of the pandemic. One of these professors is Paul Hastings, a psychology professor and researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis. His research has focused on how COVID-19 restrictions have affected different groups of people, including undergraduate students at UC Davis. He surveyed students’ ability to cope with the changes caused by these restrictions and behaviors that they attributed to trying to cope with restrictions. He explained that when faced with a life-altering situation like the pandemic, people engage in self-protective behaviors, but that due to the nature of COVID-19, some of these common coping mechanisms were made impossible.
“Along with the kind of fight-or-flight response of self-protective behavior, there’s another theory called the tend-and-befriend, which is when under conditions of stress and threat, we seek to forge connections with others, and we build our social bonds,” Hastings said. “The pandemic conditions really challenged our ability to do that because we were supposed to be keeping our distance.”
Hastings and his graduate students collected 15 months’ worth of data and are preparing to publish a report that focuses on the early stages of the pandemic’s lockdowns. He said that those first few months were critical in learning about people’s stress responses. Along with other studies done through UC Davis, Hastings said that his group found that overall stress levels did increase during the pandemic, but not in the way many experts assumed they would.
“There had been a lot of initial thought that what was going to occur was initial stress levels were going to be really high, and then people would get used to this new context of remote school, maintaining social distancing, et cetera, and then things would calm down,” Hastings said. “We saw the opposite — that there was a linear increase.”
Hastings said that since March of 2020, when COVID-19 became widespread throughout the U.S., students have experienced stress related to the pandemic, but they have also experienced other intense stressors not immediately associated with COVID-19. According to Hastings, the survey found a “pivot point” around May 26, 2020, the day after George Floyd’s murder. He said that this marked the beginning of a steepening increase in stress levels that continued as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, leading to instances of violence and inequality dominating headlines. Hastings explained that the past 20 months have been stressful on a national level for many reasons, apart from the ongoing pandemic.
“We’ve been in a period of enormous social upheaval with regard to the social justice protests around Black Lives Matter, with respect to the [2020 Presidential] election, with respect to the increasing recognition of climate disasters,” Hastings said.
Although Hastings’s group stopped collecting survey data in summer 2021, he said that he has been noticing how different students are coping with the return to in-person classes. Some students appear to be thriving, while others are being put in even more difficult situations. Hastings said that more students are using the campus student mental health services and are seeking out academic accommodations as they readjust to life on campus.
Some students have fallen back into a semi-normal routine in which they can better achieve their academic, social and career goals, but for a variety of reasons, other students have struggled with the expectations of returning to in-person learning and extracurricular activities. COVID-19 is still deemed an ongoing pandemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many students are still facing the additional challenges of social inequality, financial insecurity and compromised health.
Mental health disparities in students remain high even as fall quarter feels “normal” for some. According to the UC Davis Student Health and Well-Being Data, as of spring 2021, 58.1% of undergraduates were experiencing loneliness and one in three were experiencing serious psychological distress. These numbers may have changed as pandemic-related restrictions have shifted, but stress, anxiety and burnout continue to affect students. Hastings said that for some, the transition back to in-person learning has been just as hard as the transition to online learning was last March.
Molly Hill, a fourth-year psychology major, is a mental well-being project management student coordinator for Health Education and Promotion, one of the organizations on campus that aims to end the stigma around mental health and provide students with support resources. She explained that stress and burnout can have multiple faces, and students can experience ranging symptoms.
“Academic burnout can manifest in a lot of ways,” Hill said. “It can look like difficulties in concentrating, feeling distracted, having difficulty getting enough sleep, procrastinating, feeling easily frustrated or overwhelmed and de-prioritizing self-care or personal hygiene.”
Though burnout is common in students — especially those in higher education — it seems to be more prevalent this year. Catarina Duarte, a fourth-year biological psychology major and a project chair for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), explained one theory as to why.
“The same amount of school work pre-pandemic feels like a lot more work post-pandemic,” Duarte said. “I feel like a lot of professors [have been] super accommodating, but others are overworking us by giving us a lot of work and reading that takes me forever and burns me out.”
Hill said that social burnout, such as being exhausted after social interaction or avoiding socially demanding situations, can have similarly damaging effects. Even the most extroverted people can be caught off-guard by how draining a social life can be after a year of interacting with the same handful of people.
“I’m a very extroverted person,” Duarte said. “I love talking to people and meeting new people, but it can be emotionally exhausting.”
The emotional toll that extroverted people experience is magnified for students who normally feel social anxiety or consider themselves introverted.
Hastings pointed out that though there were many challenges and stressors associated with the pandemic, his research found that students expressed high levels of compassion during the pandemic. He said that though there were reports of people hoarding toilet paper and flour, there were also people hanging up signs to support health care workers.
Hill said that the pandemic put an emotional strain on many students that has amplified the burnout they are feeling.
“In a way, the pandemic has changed student burnout by revealing how stretched-thin many students have been emotionally in the past year,” Hill said.
According to the study by UC Davis Health Education and Promotion, students were not only dealing with additional stress in their own lives, but they were also worried about the mental and physical health of people closest to them. The study showed that three in five students were very concerned that someone they care about would get COVID-19, half of students were very concerned that someone they care about will die from COVID-19 and two in three were very concerned about not being able to spend time with the people they care about. Duarte said that she experienced this increase of stress from worrying about people with whom she is close.
“During the pandemic, when people were struggling a lot, my friends came to me,” Duarte said. “Sometimes I was dealing with texting and calling people, and it was a lot because I was also going through stuff.”
This year, Duarte said that she is prioritizing taking breaks and giving herself grace. She recommended taking time between assignments to do something fun, but also emphasized that it is important not to procrastinate. Her biggest piece of advice is trying to avoid being overwhelmed. She noted that this is a transition, so students should slowly get back into life in person.
Similarly, Hill said that she struggled socially, emotionally and academically this year as she navigated returning to campus. She said that recognizing when she needs to reach out for support and then following up on that has been helpful for her. Organizations like NAMI and Health Education and Promotion are readily available resources for students to turn to if they find themselves needing support.
Hastings, Hill and Duarte all expressed that despite the grief and instability that the pandemic has caused, they hope that the community can learn from the challenges they’ve faced.
“One of the lessons we may have learned is about recognizing just how vitally important it is for us to be interconnected with each other, and supportive of each other, as a community and as a society,” Hastings said. “Then, I think we should seek ways to maintain that lesson.”
UC Davis students can schedule individual counseling sessions with the Student Health and Wellness Center by calling 1(530)752-0871. For additional resources, visit the Healthy UC Davis or Aggie Compass Basic Needs Center websites.
Written by: Maya Shydlowski — firstname.lastname@example.org