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Scattered to the winds, college students mourn lost semester

From his little room in the empty summer camp where he was sheltering from the pandemic, like a character in an apocalyptic movie, Joshua McCartney wrote a letter to the provost of Denison University, where he was a senior.

His classmates had been scattered to the four winds, breaking up the community they depended on for support. They were anxious and stressed, he said, and the university did not seem to get it.

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“The sheer volume of panic attacks, nightmares and tears that have been related to me in the past two weeks is staggering,” he wrote in a letter co-signed by 23 other students.

Stress and college seem to go hand in hand, but the sudden emptying out of campuses across the United States has increased the anxiety for many students, who find themselves isolated from their peers, packed together with their parents and full of worry over what the future holds.

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One in five students say their mental health has significantly worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey conducted in April by Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group focused on college students.

Almost all of the 2,000 students surveyed said the virus had caused them stress or anxiety, and 80% said they had experienced loneliness or isolation because of it. Nearly half said that a major source of stress was the financial effect of the virus on them or their families.

As the virus spread, young people shifted from talking about getting a degree, finding a job and falling in love to “pandemic anxiety,” said Boaz Gaon, founder of the mental-health-oriented social networking app Wisdo, which has 20,000 active college-age users. “They’ve developed sleeplessness,” Gaon said. “They’re looking for new friends, purpose in life.”

Of course, most people are resilient, and sadness and anxiety are understandable reactions to this wrenching moment. “We don’t need to tell people they’re suffering from a mental health problem when they’re having an appropriate response to very challenging circumstances,” said Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist with the Jed Foundation, who advises colleges on mental health issues.

Still, McCartney can testify that the feelings he and others are experiencing are intense. To prove it, he has collected a series of testimonials from his friends:

“The things that have gotten me through the roughest times in college have been the community, my friends and roommates. I have lost that support network.”

“I just spent an hour crying, and that was my self-care of the month.”

“Josh, I’m serious — I don’t think I can do this much more. I have no motivation, and I can’t work this hard for much longer.”

‘I felt really bad because I could relate to it.’

While Maite Rodriguez was away at college, her mother moved into her childhood room. A junior at New York University, Rodriguez returned home to Newark, New Jersey in March to find her mother’s Bible studies laid out on her old desk, and her mother’s jewelry scattered around her old room.

“I literally don’t have a space in my house that’s my own,” she said.

She could hardly blame her parents. They were down, too. They live over the family restaurant and bar, closed because of the virus. Her mother went downstairs nonetheless to clean it every day. Her father slept most of the day and watched TV all night, the schedule he kept when the bar was open. Rodriguez’s sleep habits changed to match.

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Her family joked that she was the breadwinner, because Rodriguez was still being paid $150 every two weeks for the student job she could no longer do.

She faithfully took her classes online, sitting on the bed she shared with her mother. Instead of clearing her head by walking across campus between classes, she walked around the kitchen.

She noticed that some of her peers rarely checked into class. But she could no longer knock on their dorm room doors to ask how they were doing.

Instead, she caught glimpses of their home lives on Zoom — upscale residences with floor-to-ceiling windows or a student sitting stoically through a screaming match between his parents.

Out of sympathy for him, Rodriguez turned off the sound on her computer. “I felt really bad because I could relate to it,” she said.

‘I had some kind of purpose.’

When they sent students home, colleges began offering mental health counseling remotely. But requests for counseling showed a decrease rather than an increase, according to Kim Coplin, the Denison provost to whom McCartney wrote his letter. She said other colleges and universities showed a similar pattern. “We don’t have any data available at this time to give us definitive answers,” Coplin said.

Students say the answer is obvious — lack of privacy at home.

Joshua Osvaldo Arrayales had a therapist and a nutritionist at NYU, where he went through a gender transition. But back at home in San Diego,, he no longer consults them. “They did tell us we were allowed to videoconference,” he said. “I thought it was best to maybe not openly talk about how my parents have made a lot of my life difficult.”

He has been trying to wean himself from his anti-anxiety medication, because it has been hard to get a steady supply.

He dreaded going home to face his family.

“I feel like being thrown into my home life, which over the years has exacerbated both my anxiety and my depression,” he said, “I’m going to have a setback.”

His parents are still at work, his mother at a grocery store, his father in the food service industry. Arrayales takes care of his little sister and walks the dog. He has mixed feelings about being home — he wants to take care of his family and be taken care of, yet he misses his independence.

But he is eager to regain his life and identity in college. “I think it’s just like, I feel really lonely,” he said. “I think that in New York, going to school, I had some kind of purpose, in a way, because I had to be at work. I had to be at class. I made plans with people, so I had to be there. Now it’s like I don’t have to be anywhere, and even if I do, I’m already there. I’m already at home.”

‘I just kind of cry, and I don’t know why I’m crying.’

The mental health and academic performance of students are intertwined, so universities have tried to provide academic as well as psychological help remotely. “We continued to provide free tutoring, academic advising, virtual study tables and library support and resources,” Coplin, the Denison provost, said.

But Grace Horn, McCartney’s classmate at Denison, found that counseling online had its limits. “Now there’s just a disconnect that you can’t breach virtually,” she said.

Horn, home in Atlanta, worries about the future. She left school in the middle of applying for jobs after graduation, and her divorced mother is unemployed.

At home, she has the ideal quarantine setup: her own bedroom, her own bathroom, a little balcony outside her room. She makes Chex Mix as if she were still in her dorm. When it is time to socialize, she joins her mother and, from a distance, the backyard neighbors. She said her mood was volatile.

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“It really oscillates from great hope, and I’m graduating and I have great friends, and we’re talking on Zoom all the time to these great deep sadnesses where I just kind of cry, and I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said.

‘Everything has been ended.’

In March, McCartney drove to the summer camp his family has operated for generations in Sidney, Maine, from Denison’s campus in Granville, Ohio.

His father picked up his sister in Chicago, stopped at their apartment in New York City to pick up the cat and joined him. His mother went south to Florida, to tend to her parents.

There is a charter school on the camp grounds, also closed for the pandemic. He set himself up in a classroom. The high-speed Wi-Fi was excellent.

In some ways, it was a cozy setup. His father and sister live in separate staff apartments. His aunt and uncle live in the main house. His cousin and his cousin’s husband have moved in as well. Another cousin, a carpenter, lives in town and comes to visit, but, at least at first, was wary of getting out of his car for fear of infection.

But McCartney feels trapped.

He was heartened when the provost got back to him within hours of his email, telling him that she, too, was having adjustment problems.

About a week ago, he celebrated his commencement online, with family members dropping in remotely. It was a happy event, but the anxiety rose up in him as soon as it was over. Medical school beckons in the future. But he is not exactly sure what to do right now.

“Everything has been ended — closed or canceled or disallowed,” he said.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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