The Pandemic Within the Pandemic: College Students Are Experiencing Unprecedented Rates of Social Anxiety
“No, I’m not. I’m on base!”
Ahhh, remember the sound of children playing outside, interacting with one another, arguing and resolving their differences, but ending the day happy and, more importantly, still friends? It may seem like a trivial, or even curmudgeonly observation to make, but as I spend my days exploring the increasing anxiety and depression that our youth are experiencing, I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t trivial after all.
These interactions are powerful (some studies have actually made a connection between social isolation and heightened stress responses that can lead to chronic disease in adulthood), but it seems like with each generation we’ve further deemphasized the value of social interactions for kids. They have gone from knocking on their neighbor’s door, to interacting with the parents to ask their friends to play, to telephone calls that mirrored that interaction, to texts directly to the friends, to a world where the kids can simply connect virtually and not even need to “get together” to interact.
College Administrators Are Calling this the Pandemic within the Pandemic
In doing some market research, I have spoken with a dozen or so universities in the past week, and a theme that I heard when discussing the mental health of students on campus is, “we’re dealing with a pandemic inside the pandemic.” In other words, adminstrators are finding that college-aged students have a social ineptitude, and resulting anxiety, that is paired with a need for interaction, which unfortunately has been stifled in these pandemic times.
Even before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic there was research documenting an increase in social anxiety in young people which makes me wonder – why is this generation experiencing their university years in a vastly different way than those of us who trudged across campus decades ago? What is different about their experience? What has made them more socially anxious? Pointing to social media may seem like low-hanging fruit (with the ongoing backlash and criticism) but could the rise in social media during this generation’s childhood have altered their social habits enough to impact their mental health? Some studies say yes.
To further support the notion that live social interaction plays a role on our mental health, there’s been anecdotal observations on campus that young adults who are socially involved (like college athletes or those heavily involved in clubs) seem to have fared better through the COVID-19 pandemic. Student athletes have stayed connected, they have learned and relearned how to support themselves and others. On the other hand, students who have to spend their time at work, in fields like hospitality, distribution centers, etc. to support themselves, have had their interactions and responsibilities disrupted and their experience has been woefully different. They’ve lost social interaction, resorted to receiving assistance and now have to make a choice of whether to keep receiving that assistance or go back to work. This has been a tough decision which has impacted their mental health in ways that others, like the student athletes, haven’t experienced.
We Need to Give College Students the Tools to Learn Resiliency
While social interaction seems to play a foundational role in the mental state of our youth, we can’t lose sight of the value of teaching resilience and ensuring that our rising generations have the tools and resources required to manage through unforeseen circumstances, like the pandemic we have all recently endured. It’s undeniable that we have a problem. Our students are frustrated with the challenges they are experiencing and the lack of support to resolve it. Administrators are concerned and searching for ways to support their student population. Alumni are worried about the reputations of their universities. Fortunately, the pandemic has shone a light on this issue, forcing universities to explore a number of resources, like:
- Creating specific committees focused on mental health.
- Incorporating wellbeing into the broader student needs. You might see things around campus like meditation rooms and pop-ups focused on sleep practices and self-care.
- Offering mental health education at orientation alongside alcohol and drug awareness programs.
- Providing digital tools and resources to supplement the Counseling and Psychological Services.
But we can’t place all of the responsibility on the universities to solve this social ineptitude and mental health pandemic. They will be a great driver of change for those who are already facing this condition. But how can we reduce the prevalence of social anxieties and prevent these challenges our university students face when exposed to significant life changes?
We all have a social responsibility to support our youth and prepare them for the future. I challenge every tech company to think about the ramifications of their products. I challenge every political leader to think about how we incorporate social skills into K-12 learning. I challenge communities to think about ways to get children back together. And I challenge you to think about your own conversations. Are you promoting a culture of social interaction and engagement, or has this “pandemic within the pandemic” stricken you too?