As students are being impacted by effects of COVID-19, experts and students discuss the psychological impacts

While many are losing jobs and adjusting to social distancing regulations, some are finding ways to be resilient

 Tori Harder, a senior in the University of Minnesota’s graphic design program, had been interning at an advertising agency this semester with a full-time job lined up for after graduation. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Minnesota, Harder’s world turned upside down. She was laid off from her internship and the job offer was rescinded because of the outbreak. 

Harder, like many other graduating seniors, is struggling to adapt as job offers are rescinded and she is graduating with an uncertain future. These changes, along with reduced social interactions to help slow the pandemic, can be draining and lead to negative psychological impacts.  The brunt of these impacts, experts say, will be felt by groups like low-income students because they less to fall back on during this time. As students adjust to the changes brought on by the pandemic, some are finding ways to be resilient. 

“I grew up without health insurance because my family was low-income…you know, I was going to have full health and dental benefits and then all of a sudden nothing was working out.” Harder said of having her full-time job offer rescinded. “It was just such an immediate shift, one day everything was normal…and now people are dying and it’s terrifying.”

As social distancing and stay at home regulations are in place, this loss of social interaction could increase negative health outcomes, said Carrie Henning-Smith, an assistant professor for the School of Public Health and deputy director of the University’s Rural Health Research Center. “The looming health and economic impacts of this pandemic will have devastating implications for social isolation and loneliness.” 

While she said the on-going social distancing measures are imperative to mitigating threats to health care systems, the impacts of these measures will be felt more strongly by certain communities. 

While people are already addressing and talking about mental health impacts indirectly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including loss of jobs and feelings of isolation and loneliness, the psychological impacts of the virus itself are not yet known. 

J. Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, through his research into the 1918 influenza pandemic, noted the direct link between those who suffered from the influenza strain and the mental health issues that arose after their recovery. 

“There is a known link between various neuropsychiatric conditions and influenza infections,” Navarro said. “Including not only depression but also Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s-like disease in some of those who recovered from the 1918 pandemic strain.”

Though, as COVID-19 is so new, Navarro said he doesn’t think researchers will know for some time what the mental health issues will be that stem from COVID-19. 

In a Public Health Reports journal article that looked at photos from the 1918 flu era, Navarro recognized that despite the widespread tragedy, the images depicted the people’s resilience. 

“The images of the pandemic do not portray the calamity of the times, but rather the ingenuity and sense of togetherness that it fostered.”

Similarly, as students and faculty emerge from the immediate shock of the current pandemic, many are finding ways to stay resilient and create community in new ways. 

While navigating through her losses and worrying about her next rent payment, Harder said she feels gratitude. She regularly FaceTimes with friends and got a kitten, which has been helping her through the changes. She said having a pet to take care is distracting her from the negativity. 

“The shift is me paying attention to the little things I did throughout the day…like interactions with people who aren’t in your immediate sphere, and seeing them as privileges,” she said.

As for Henning-Smith, her hope is that this period of social distancing and isolation “actually makes our connections stronger, as we realize how much we need each other.