When COVID-19 spread around the world last March, local officials, news outlets and media emphasized safety measures such as social distancing, mask wearing and, now, vaccinations. But while physical protection from the virus has consumed national dialogue, a worrisome mental health catastrophe has quietly creeped in and proliferated.
About 40 percent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression from Jan. to March 1 2021 nationwide, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Individuals aged 18 to 29 soared above the average, with 50.4 to 57 percent of those surveyed indicating symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders over that time period.
Boston University’s own mental health resources are lacking, according to some community members, and students say they need that help the most.
Jessica Venis, a junior majoring in the College of Arts and Sciences, said addressing mental health issues are important today because in her experience, mental health can lead to physical ailments, such as anxiety-induced migraines.
On top of that, she said talking about mental health can help individuals struggling to feel supported and know they are not alone.
“Everybody struggles with mental health, as well, everybody gets anxious over something, everybody gets stressed over something,” Venus said. “It’s not just a percentage of people, everybody’s going to deal with some sort of mental health issue.”
Venis said she initially transferred to BU in Spring 2020, but then decided to take the semester off when her mental health worsened.
“I was going into it struggling with depression, struggling with anxiety, panic disorder,” she said. “It was already in distress going into the pandemic, and so when the pandemic hit it was already just kind of like ‘Well, this is just now an everyday occurrence I’m going to have to deal with for I don’t know how long.’”
When she took the semester off, Venis said, she “dove headfirst into [her] mental health.”
“I really went into the whole aspect of seeing professional help in that situation, whether that was virtually or in person,” she said. “I relied a lot on local friends as well, to try to pull me out of bed so I wasn’t just stuck in bed all day, so try to get me out, going and doing stuff.”
Now, she said she tries to keep a routine, and make sure to always do something for herself every day.
“I love to listen to music, I love to work out, trying to incorporate those as much as I can throughout my week just to give myself a break from everyday life,” she said, “to calm myself down from certain emotions and step back from what’s going on throughout the world.”
CAS sophomore Helly Patel said she’s felt her mental health worsen severely since last March, when she said it quickly deteriorated — for about a year now, she has not been able to get back to where she was over a year ago.
While she’s been doing her best to safely interact with friends — whether online or socially-distanced in person — and staying busy with assignments, Patel said not seeing and leaning on people has been a big strain.
“I couldn’t really cope the way I normally would,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to go out with my friends, hang out with them and try to take my mind off of it.”
Jacob Knight, a sophomore in CAS, said he suddenly reached a low depressive point last semester that he couldn’t shake.
“There was nothing that made me feel better,” he said. “I went home for the weekend that actually made me feel better, but … even watching my favorite videos, they wouldn’t cheer me up.”
Though he said his recovery has been gradual, talking to people was the “most important thing.”
“I started to get better after that,” Knight said.
Another sophomore in CAS, Allison Kim, said she felt unmotivated and overwhelmed from the onset of the pandemic, and has been inhibited by online classes — a learning environment she said she doesn’t thrive in.
Kim also described how life was feeling repetitive, especially as people’s behavior remained unchanged for months. She also said Asian-American discrimination was difficult to deal with.
“I came across way too many people who refuse to wear a mask or refuse to believe that COVID’s real or they would blame it on Asian people,” she said, “that was something that I had to deal with, which was very tough because I tried to just act like it didn’t bother me when in reality, what they said was very hurtful.”
Her anxiety and panic attacks, spurred by online school and pandemic-related stress, made Kim feel shameful for having become “a weak person,” and being unable to handle her responsibilities amid the global health crisis — she couldn’t do it all, which she said made her feel inadequate.
“I thought that I would be able to handle all this school and all this pressure and all that,” she said, “but I wasn’t.”
Boston University Student Health Services lists resources for mental health and assisting students in distress. BU Behavioral Medicine providers can be reached at a 24/7 hotline for mental health emergencies, and Samaritans is a local Boston area organization providing free, confidential resources and a hotline.
Kim said she’s learned it’s important to let out her feelings. But at the same time, she said, she’s learned it’s important to take care of yourself too.
“It’s okay to cry,” Kim said. “It’s okay to release your emotions but … try to think about something positive, try to think about something that makes you happy, try to think about the people that care about you.”