Mental Health During a Global Pandemic


Art by Emily Kucera

Aala Basheir and Rebecca Michaeli

In the midst of a pandemic with little structure, many students have expressed finding it challenging to adjust to the new normal. In addition to the challenges posed by new ways of learning, mental health and wellbeing can often be overlooked. 

“There’s nothing normal about this situation right now,” Ivryel Reed ‘21 said, “I had a concert I was looking forward to in June, I had bought my tickets and everything.”

On March 11th, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and two days later, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in the United States. 

“Everyone started talking about Corona. I honestly didn’t think it was that big of a deal because I really expected us to handle it a lot better than what has happened,” Iya Alexander ‘22 said. 

According to the Center for Disease Control, the total number of COVID-19 cases rose to a high of 7.2 million in the United States. The cumulative COVID-19 positivity rate has reached 12.79% in Johnson County, Iowa. 

“I’m super paranoid about getting coronavirus. I like to get outside of the house but, the only time I really go anywhere is on the weekends, maybe going to the mall or something,” Reed said. “Besides that, I’m not really hanging out with people until a COVID vaccine, you don’t know how other people are handling it, or if they’re wearing masks or washing their hands.”

While many find that it’s important to stay updated and informed on current events, and what’s taking place in the world, a constant stream of news can often feel overwhelming. For some, nonstop information can add to anxiety and stress. 

“In the beginning, [news about COVID-19] was all I looked at. Looking back on it, one of my biggest triggers for my anxiety is watching the news. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have been doing that so often, because I would wake up, check the news, and continue to check it throughout the day,” Reed said. “I definitely stay away from [watching the news] now. I mean it’s hard to avoid the news all together, but I definitely mute topics and do my best to not look at it as often.” 

Social media has acted as a news source for some of the population. Many platforms including Instagram and Tik Tok have included a disclaimer, encouraging people to check reliable sources for their information regarding the Coronavirus. This can be found when using the hashtag “COVID-19”, “corona” or “coronavirus”.

To start off the school year, the Iowa City Community School District required all students to attend virtual classes for the first three weeks, in addition to pausing all school-related activities. In-person school and activities resumed with the hybrid model, which is a combination of online and in-person classes.

“I think the thing that makes it so hard this year is that we’ve never done online school before. The teachers don’t really understand how much work they’re giving out, and how much the workload affects mental health.” Reed said.

Barb Anderson works as an educational program consultant in the Bureau of Vendor Strategies Support at the Iowa Department of Education. Her job focuses on the important factors that are critical to learning, but aren’t necessarily academic in nature. 

“We have high anxiety, and have had lots of traumatic events occurring throughout the summer. Some of the most vulnerable among us are the most highly impacted,” Anderson said. 

Teaching and participating in virtual classes require a certain level of technical proficiency. Hosting Zoom classes, and creating and using online platforms is new for many teachers and students. 

“A lot of [my teachers] are not very good at technology. They kind of make the assignments difficult to find,” Rigby Templemen ‘23 said. “They also assign a ton of homework because I think that since we’re not in school they [feel as if they] have to make up for that some way.”

Online learning is unfamiliar for most students, being something they have never done before. For some, the new schedule and workload can feel overwhelming. 

“Different students learn differently, but I think most students can agree that all of the assignments [should be] on one page and would make it very clear,” Templemen said.

Aside from the workload, communication between students and teachers has become more important, but logistically difficult. Many online students have found it more difficult to work one on one with their teachers because of limited time on Zoom classes.

“Mental health is something that a lot of people are struggling with. I told my teachers straight up that I have anxiety disorder and it’s going to impact my school performance,” Reed said. “I just emailed a teacher yesterday saying ‘I’m overwhelmed, can I please turn in this assignment late?’ He was really understanding about it. I think the plus side of this is that there’s gonna be a lot more understanding from the teachers.”

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety are in the top ten leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15–19 years. Anxiety is the sixth for ages 10–14 years. They also state that schoolwork and attendance can be affected by these emotional disorders, and that social withdrawal can add to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

“Not being able to see the people that I [normally] see every day when I was at school, people that I don’t really talk to outside of school, has been weird. Those were really big social connections that I had,” Alexander said. “Not having those social connections is something that’s very, very different.”

When dealing with mental health, it is not uncommon to feel discouraged. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, social stigma surrounding mental health can prevent people from seeking treatment in fear of being labeled. Internalized stigma can cause people to avoid their own feelings and also lead to denial of treatment. 

“If I had a broken arm, I wouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. So why would I be if I had a chemical imbalance, or if my brain isn’t functioning how it should be because of depression? This question is one of the powerful things that the student voice asked when talking about reducing stigma,” Anderson said. 

While social stigma has been declining in the past few years, the NCBI states that the best way to overcome mental health stigma is working one on one with a mental health professional.

“We have a lot of work to do in education across the board with adults and young people in reducing stigma. If we can create new norms, based in science, and help people understand [mental health] in a holistic way, that there is no shame in seeking help, we might save a life,” Anderson said. 

Feeling supported, and having trusted friends and adults, is helpful in adjusting to this new learning environment. Students may find that mental health should be prioritized more than it has been in previous learning contexts. 

“We know in terms of our brain research, that in order for anyone to be able to learn, they have to first feel safe. Creating environments where people feel safe and connected allows for that to happen,” Anderson said. 

The Iowa Crisis Chat is a nonprofit organization that provides support for people struggling with emotional crises. The Iowa Crisis Chat is available for contact seven days a week, and can be reached by phone or chat, 24 hours a day. 

“I’ve always been an advocate for mental health but now that I’m going through my own things, I think it’s very important that we destigmatize mental health in students,” Reed said.

If you or anyone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts or impulses, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-8255.