By Blake Hunter & Logan Potter
Feeling isolated during the pandemic and in need of medication management, junior media arts and English major Alyza Lovenguth sought help at a local mental health facility. Lovenguth was prepared to check herself into in-patient care when she was routinely screened for COVID-19 by an employee at the facility.
The facility informed Lovenguth that she could not be admitted due to her above-normal temperature and requested that she take an ambulance to a nearby emergency room, where she was tested for COVID-19. The test eventually returned a negative result.
“They told me it would take five days [to receive test results],” Lovenguth said. “At that point, I was like, ‘There’s no hope. I’m not getting help today.’ I didn’t have any symptoms besides what, I guess, you would call a fever; it was 100.3.”
Lovenguth’s experience may sound like an outlier, but the disruption that COVID-19 has caused in a few short months is having widespread effects on mental health. Students, accustomed to a busy campus and meeting with peers face-to-face, are now socially and physically isolated, all while living with the uncertainty of Boise State’s plans for the upcoming fall semester and learning to operate virtual interfaces for every class.
Dr. Tedd McDonald, a community psychology professor, explained that the current upheaval of normal campus life for college students is unprecedented. Accordingly, students are experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
“The levels of fear, conflicting information, restrictions on everyday activities and general separation from normal life are entirely new and unprecedented for most Americans,” McDonald wrote in an email. “Given college students’ unique circumstances, they seem particularly vulnerable to experiencing anxiety at an abnormal level during COVID-19.”
Acknowledging this vulnerability and state of anxiety can help with reconciliation when it comes to the mental health struggles that correlate with the pandemic, according to McDonald.
“I think the most useful tools are awareness of our true feelings, acceptance that the anxieties we feel are normal and the ability to extend to ourselves the forgiveness and grace that we would offer to our loved ones in the same situation,” McDonald wrote.
The fear of the coronavirus, a future of financial insecurity and a lack of interpersonal communication are intensifying pre-existing mental health struggles and often creating entirely new ones.
According to Dr. Matt Niece, director of Boise State Counseling Services, the lack of in-person connection throughout the COVID-19 outbreak can create negative feelings and, often, elevate the need for mental health services for many students.
“There’s something that’s happening in the brain chemically when you don’t get that in-person interaction,” Niece said. “People start to feel more isolated.”
Coping with these feelings is crucial to regain some of that normalcy, according to Niece. A need or desire for control or predictability is common, especially for students who stick to a relatively constant routine.
Niece explained that intellectual stimulation — like talking to friends or taking a walk — can help students feel more accountable for their schedules.
“[It is better] the more we are honest with each other about how we are really feeling,” Niece said. “And not just focusing on the negative, which can lead to commiserating and furthering feelings of negativity and frustration, but also be thinking about the positive things and finding the silver linings in our situations.”
But speaking out about concerns and redirecting attention to positive thoughts are not cure-alls for students with pre-existing mental health struggles or dangerous living situations.
Ayako Campion is a licensed clinical counselor at University Health Services and said that domestic violence and suicidal ideation were two of the most concerning outcomes of increased time in isolation. People already experiencing either of those outcomes face many obstacles to connecting to resources, but the time spent alone can increase those barriers.
Campion also said that it is important to identify this time as a kind of grief. Conventionally, a loss is only called grief when a person has died, but Campion said that there are actually many kinds of grief.
“What we haven’t been talking about enough is the ambiguous loss and the ambiguous grief,” Campion said. “And that can be loss of experience, loss of a job, the loss of just moving from one place to another, like, just what you are going through; that can totally be ambiguous loss.”
Campion hopes people experiencing anxiety can be vulnerable about their feelings, while not feeling pressured to have any answers or expect to feel a particular way.
“I’ve heard already from so many clients, like ‘I’m feeling this way or that way and I don’t know if that’s the right feeling,’ or ‘I don’t know how, or what I should be feeling,’” Campion said.
Sophomore applied math major Annie Klinkenberg is staying honest and optimistic when it comes to their mental health. One of the biggest points of tension in their life during the COVID-19 outbreak has been the lack of social interaction. Although they cannot see their friends in person, Klinkenberg has been working to stay social with the use of technology.
“I am someone who just loves being around my friends as much as I can,” Klinkenberg said. “And video calls are great and I’m always super happy that we have this technology for that, but it’s not the same as being with them and being able to hug them and all that stuff. So it’s been hard, but all of my friends and I are making sure we are FaceTiming as much as possible; we are playing online board games, too.”
But the need for companionship goes beyond social circumstances, as classes moved online for students at Boise State and beyond in mid-March. As a result of the pandemic, study habits are changing, and Klinkenberg is finding unique ways to stay motivated with her friends despite the distance between them.
“One of my friends and I actually have plans to FaceTime and just study together because we’re both trying so hard to be productive,” Klinkenberg said. “And we’re like, ‘You know what? Because we can’t study in person, we’re just gonna push each other on FaceTime and study, even though we’re not in the same place.’”
The changing of routines — including study habits — that came with the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders nationwide undoubtedly caused disruption. For Klinkenberg, though, looking at the silver lining may be the key to social distancing success.
“I think the first word that comes to mind is definitely overwhelming because it’s just so many things all at once,” Klinkenberg said. “I’m sure I’m not the only person experiencing that because the entire world basically went through the whole thing all in a short period of time it feels like. So, it’s overwhelming, but I’m optimistic, I guess. I hope it’s getting better and I hope that my personal mental health is gonna be OK.”
Focusing on productivity and success is a helpful narrative for some people to follow, but the effects of isolation combined with pre-existing mental health issues for others make it hard to even get help, much less try to stay on top of homework.
For Lovenguth, being told that she would be unable to get immediate help at the psychiatric hospital provoked her existing anxiety and paranoia for medical professionals. After being sent to the emergency room, Lovenguth did not return to the original facility, instead opting to pay extra funds to see her regular psychiatrist.
Now, Lovenguth has improved medication management, although she still sometimes struggles with reaching out for help.
To help people with mental health issues, Lovenguth sees a potential for more walk-in, 24-hour services for people who cannot afford their own psychiatrist or need help outside of business hours. In her experience, isolation is a major symptom of depression, and the necessity to stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus creates a dangerous catch-22 that many people with similar problems might find themselves in.
“I was already isolating myself before, and now I’m forced to do what my doctors have told me not to do,” Lovenguth said. “So it’s kind of weird having a major depression system of self-isolating, and then basically the government says, ‘Yeah, you’ve gotta do that now.’”
Lovenguth hopes that hospitals and the government take the existing mental health problems in America more seriously, especially now that more people than ever are being affected by stress and anxiety in isolation.
“I think a lot of the time, people with mental illness kind of slip through the cracks,” Lovenguth said. “So I just think some extra care would be nice.”
That extra care may come in myriad different forms. McDonald believes that in order to achieve that kind of care, this pandemic has to change the way individuals think of mental health and one another.
“I like to believe that this crisis will help all of us reorient ourselves to issues that really matter, for example, our common humanity and connection to one another,” McDonald wrote. “I like to believe that we will emerge from this more compassionate, more understanding, more forgiving and more committed to a better collective future than we were before the crisis emerged. Whether that happens is, of course, something that remains to be seen.”
The Arbiter reported in April that multiple Boise crisis centers are remaining open during this time as a resource for those experiencing domestic violence. Additionally, there are many different mental health resources available to Idahoans, from grief education to support groups to psychiatric hospitals.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255, and they have a chat function available.