Three panelists shared their perspectives on how the pandemic has shaped our collective mental wellbeing.

Columbia Science Review held a panel on Thursday titled “COVID College Blues: The Impact of COVID on Mental Health”: their first in-person event since the beginning of the pandemic. A modest but attentive crowd attended.

CSR members moderated the panel of three: Dr. Dana Palmer, professor of epidemiology and senior associate provost for academic programs; Joseph Greenwell, vice president for student affairs in university life; and Dr. Anne Marie Albano, a clinical psychologist, professor of medical psychology, and director of Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

The panel answered questions presented by the student moderators, and then those generated from an open Q&A portion. Discussion ensued about challenges in mental health presented by COVID-19, the collective mental suffering each has witnessed in the past year and a half, and healthy ways to cope with uncertainty, pain, and loss. At the end of the panel, one student read an anonymously submitted question that directly challenged Columbia’s approach to safety and mental health in the pandemic.                  

After brief introductions and welcomes, the panel kicked off with a question about the difficulties of addressing the mental impact of COVID-19 in their respective fields. Dr. Albano spoke about the awkwardness of transitioning from face-to-face interaction to Zoom calls, as a psychologist treating young people. Therapists during the pandemic “saw a lot that we maybe wouldn’t have seen”—middle school boys Zooming in shirtless, for example. College students starved for privacy have been calling in from bathroom stalls, and those without access to electronics or privacy have been disproportionately struggling with this new model. 

Dr. Palmer explained that although her entire career has dealt with mental health, even prior to the pandemic, her field was “ill-equipped” to handle such issues effectively. COVID-19 threw this into even sharper relief, compounding new collective trauma with systemic discrimination: Palmer explained that those systemically made more vulnerable to COVID-19 are simultaneously more vulnerable to its ripple effect of mental health issues, and face barriers to healthcare access in both respects. She emphasized that we have no idea yet what the long-term mental impacts of this pandemic will be; she believes professionals must work quickly to figure this out, and that we all must work to “create compassionate policy” in the wake of this mass suffering. 

Greenwell described the confusion of trying to shape policy and student life in an ever-shifting situation; the difficult decision-making involved in attempting to balance students’ physical health with their mental wellbeing has been “awful.” Reflecting on students’ experiences, he considered the different challenges that each class year faces socially and mentally from COVID-19, and the face-to-face methods of making social connections which were lost to all of us for over a year. He mentioned being worried that students often forget about their well-being. 

Greenwell emphasized that student feedback was encouraged, saying, “what we hear [from you] frames everything.” 

As the conversation progressed, Dr. Albano provided an analysis of how COVID-19 has shaped mental health throughout the country, focusing on a mass-scale increase in anxiety. She traced this in part to the unpredictability of the pandemic and our utter lack of control over it, and to the related proliferation of conspiracy theories and racism. Albano stated that rates of anxiety in girls have increased by 25%, while males have reported a general increase in suicidal ideation and behavior (acknowledging that, unfortunately, these studies tend to use the gender binary). She explained that the question of whether actual mental disorders, as opposed to this general increase in anxiety, have increased in prevalence is still up in the air; the data is simply not in yet. 

Albano acknowledged that “a lot of what is happening is grief,” explaining that in addition to losing loved ones to the virus, young people have “lost major milestones” in their lives—prom and graduation, for example. She argued that parents raising young adults grappling with this loss should hold space for grief, and help mark their milestones in other ways if possible. 

Dr. Palmer briefly described the increased rates of COVID-19 and accompanying job loss, food insecurity, and childcare struggles faced by marginalized communities around the city. She stated that although there were conversations about how to equitably distribute vaccines to those that needed it most, distribution did not “play out” as such—and that mental healthcare is following the same pattern.

Returning to the topic of life at Columbia, Greenwell touched on the university’s color system for discerning the level of danger posed by COVID-19. He stated that “we’re in this weird space where we’re in yellow, but we’re seeing aspects of green in our yellow zone,” referring to the lifting of event capacity limits. 

He explained that policy should be “nimble and flexible” in addressing the changeability of the pandemic, acknowledging that this was confusing and distressing for students. Dr. Palmer recognized a similar dynamic in her own field, finding it difficult to effectively communicate about public health and policy when the underlying scientific understanding of COVID-19 keeps evolving. 

Dr. Albano believed that “psychological flexibility” is crucial for everyone moving through these changes. She described this as the ability to incorporate new information as it develops, accept it, and adapt with it: to not fall into frustration at change or linger on “what-ifs,” but to learn to take care of ourselves while working with the reality we are given. “Resilience is going to win the day,” Albano stated. 

Towards the end of the Q&A, one CSR member relayed a question submitted virtually to the panelists. The question came from a student who felt isolated in the wake of the pandemic, especially during all-remote classes, complaining that the university did not provide real mental health support during this time. Regarding the issues present in the return to in-person activities, the student wrote, “I’m not sure about the testing percentage, but I don’t think the school is being very transparent about why they are testing at certain capacities. The school’s policies about not allowing students to visit each other’s dorms for a while were really difficult too, as I felt quite separated from my peers who lived on-campus. Wouldn’t that policy have made students more eager to leave campus and get exposed downtown?”

“It pulls at my heart to hear that from any student,” Greenwell responded, “but it’s important to hear.” He explained this was not necessarily new information, and that this complaint in some form or another has been brought up repeatedly. Data about COVID-19 spreading through student socialization “was pushing the institution,” he said, and thus the “decision was made pretty quickly.” 

Greenwell again emphasized that he wanted students to continue giving feedback, imploring them to “work with us.”

panel via Celia Bernhardt