The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Students

Illustration by Sophia Zhou

Lauren Marnel Shores

On March 14, Chancellor Henry T. Yang announced that the university would transition to remote instruction for the duration of spring quarter in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, students have watched as June commencement has been moved online, summer classes continue transitioning to remote learning, and now, incoming freshmen have been told to stay home for summer orientation — left without any guarantee of whether they’ll even be welcomed on campus in the fall. 

With each coming week, UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) students are alerted to increasingly disheartening news of the loss of their expected college experience; with each day, national news alerts of the growing unrest rippling through the country. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to impact communities in startling and unforeseen ways, psychologists have begun acknowledging the symptoms of anxiety, grief, and even trauma that individuals are facing during this time. 

Janet Osimo, assistant clinical director and psychologist at UCSB Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), told The Bottom Line that students are experiencing a “general frustration” with the virtual transition. 

“There’s really a sense of loss and unarticulated grieving around what this experience has taken away,” explained Osimo. “Whether it be connection, milestone moments, the experience of spring quarter, in-class learning — there’s any number of things that students are feeling a loss about. I don’t know that they would put it in those words, but it might look like frustration, lethargy, short temperedness, maybe more easily tearful.”

In an interview with American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. George Bonanno, head of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, elaborated that loss doesn’t simply pertain to death, but rather individuals “experience grief over anything that feels like a loss of identity.” 

The sense of what it means to be a college student when one is physically separated from campus; the feeling of what it means to be part of a community when all of the other members are pixels on a screen; the question of what it means to have spent years working towards a college degree only to graduate in one of the greatest recessions since the Great Depression — all of these concerns are enough to trigger an immense sense of loss for students during this time. 

Osimo continued by stating that students are not only learning to cope with the new concerns introduced by the pandemic, but they are simultaneously working to manage the magnified intensity of pre-existing stressors in their life. 

“Regardless of what you were experiencing before COVID, that’s likely exacerbated in isolation,” Osimo stated. 

Amidst this period of ambiguous fear, UCSB Associate Dean and Director of Health and Wellness Sharleen O’Brien stated, “We want students to know that even if we can’t all gather together here on campus, they’re still part of the UCSB community, and there are so many people here who want to support them.”

In an effort to increase support for students by making CAPS more accessible, the office recently launched a new initiative called “Let’s Talk.” This program is available for students who are not looking for a full therapy session, but instead are interested in a one-time 20-minute  appointment to talk through various issues with a psychologist. 

Other resources available to students include Health and Wellness’ live mediation series available via Zoom, online free yoga classes offered by the Recreation Center, and plans for an online dog therapy day later this quarter. Students can search for upcoming wellness programming through the events page on Shoreline’s website

O’Brien explained that many of these virtual resources have been created thanks to the work of student interns. 

“[The Health and Wellness Interns] are doing an amazing job to make sure people feel as connected as possible,” O’Brien said. 

Indeed, this sense of social connection plays a key role in coping with stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website offers tips for self care, citing that connecting with others is important not only for one’s own wellbeing, but also because “helping others cope with their stress can also make your community stronger.”

“If someone is feeling alone or disconnected, please reach out to someone you can trust,” said O’Brien. “Or reach out to Health and Wellness and we can help connect them with people who can help them as well.” 

Students who are experiencing distress during this time can continue to access CAPS. Osimo explained that, in fact, many students have been reporting easier accessibility to CAPS this quarter, with many expressing gratitude that CAPS is still available during quarantine.

“We’ve been hearing from students that they think we’re more accessible and that it’s easier to get an appointment,” said Osimo. “The time that you come in for the brief assessment, and the time that you talk to a therapist in the first appointment is much shorter now.” 

Students who wish to make an appointment with CAPS can do so by registering through the link on its website. 

When asked what she wished for students to know, Osimo said simply that she asks for students to be compassionate with themselves and those around them.

“If we find ourselves short-tempered or sort of lost and unanchored, that’s absolutely common and normal,” Osimo explained. “And just give space for that and some self compassion and continue to take care of yourself. When in doubt, go back to basics: hydrating, eating, sleeping, exercising. Take care of yourself. The body is connected to the heart and the soul and the mind and if we take care of that, we take care of all of it.”