The Epidemic That Will Outlive the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Spiraling Mental Health Crisis Among Our College Students: Part II

By Luis Martínez-Fernández

April 10, 2021 5 min read

The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic have severely impacted America's college students, beyond the physical ailments endured by those who have contracted the virus and the psychological suffering wrought on by its unremitting spread.

College students, as evidenced by scores of surveys and scientific studies, are facing manifold social, economic and academic challenges that are interconnected and compound one another, producing further emotional distress. The extant evidence establishes that the poor, women, Asian Americans and other minority students are particularly vulnerable.

Laptops, iPads and smartphones, with all their heralded merits, are not adequate replacements for face-to-face interactions. And what we call social media does not foster — but instead actually weakens — social and communal bonds of the sort we are wired to cultivate.

A recent Student Voice survey of 2,000 undergraduates revealed that "friends and social life" ranked highest among the aspects of campus life students miss the most since the start of the pandemic. Those who have not yet returned to campus continue to endure high levels of social isolation, but even among those who are back on campus, 38% are dissatisfied with their opportunities to "see friends and meet peers." Close to a third, meanwhile, express dissatisfaction with opportunities to connect with professors and university staff.

One respondent from a large western state university dramatized the extent of his social disconnection. Two months into the current semester, "The only people I've talked to for more than a minute are staff at doctor's appointments."

Students are also enduring the devastating effects of the economic crisis propelled by the ongoing pandemic. In April 2020, when the general rate of unemployment soared to 14.7%, college-age Americans (18-24) endured a rate that was twice as high.

Before the pandemic, around 45% of undergraduates held part-time or full-time jobs. College-age students, a substantial proportion of whom work in the restaurant, hospitality and retail sectors, have been particularly hard hit by the rise in unemployment, many losing their jobs and many others having their work hours significantly reduced.

A July 2020 study by the American College Health Association found that two-thirds of students were feeling more stress due to their financial situation and 17% described their financial circumstances as "a lot more stressful."

This semester, two of my students told me about their loss of employment. One, who held two jobs before, lost one and is now the family's only source of income. Another, with tears in her eyes (via Zoom), told me that she had come close to homelessness not once but twice in the past few months.

A recent OneClass survey revealed that 56% of students believed they could no longer afford college. Indeed, enrollments have dropped, albeit not sharply; students are matriculating for fewer credit hours; many are having difficulties affording assigned course books.

Several studies confirm my personal observations that students are facing more academic difficulties. One study reveals that nearly 3 out of 4 students were having problems focusing on their academic work. Another study demonstrated that 80% experienced lower levels of motivation to complete their work and even show up for class.

This semester, I have had a larger than usual proportion of students withdrawing from my courses and/or stopping attending class. The proportion who are behind in their assignments is also through the roof.

Students and faculty members are also experiencing Zoom fatigue. A student survey found that nearly one-third of undergraduates "never want to take another class via Zoom."

I, for one, am anxiously looking forward to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the end of Zoombie education and the return to face-to-face interactions with my students and colleagues, without social distancing and without masks.

Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at [email protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Luis Martínez-Fernández
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