Mental health at Vassar must be prioritized in the transition to COVID-free normalcy

Ben Fikhman/The Miscellany News.

On March 19, 2020, President Elizabeth Bradley sent an email launching the complete, yet justified, upheaval of Vassar life: in-person learning was discontinued for that remaining semester. Beyond that spring, Vassar as we knew it has not been the same.

Every student on campus had to begin relying on technology for educational access and be away from the people whom they see regularly or with whom they have formed close relationships. Some were just disappointed knowing that their approach toward maintaining a routine that balanced social life, academic life and other aspects would grind to a halt, and they had to readjust. Most importantly, however, this monumental transition was a serious blow to people’s mental health. People began to feel more lonely, more uncertain about the future, and the student body had to collectively grapple with a new means of getting by throughout the semester. Even up until now, based on the student, the COVID-19 era may be challenging, demanding and possibly even psychologically gut-wrenching. 

Now we are coming upon a new transition—a transition to normalcy. In the long term, it will surely be a boost to our collective prosperity, as we can finally gather in large groups, do the same activities that we couldn’t do during the COVID-19 era and most importantly, not hurt or fear hurting our loved ones. I’m personally thrilled to see my grandparents. It is vital, however, to acknowledge that this will be a new and monumental shift. Just like the one we all underwent going into lockdown, it will be challenging. This challenge is indicative of why the Vassar student body and administration must prioritize the mental health of its students during such a transition. 

A large part of our lives during the pandemic did not feature seeing other people’s faces on the campus sidewalks or in the hallways. Students on campus are accustomed to simple head nods or waves without the smiles. As more students get vaccinated and the end of the pandemic appears in sight, we will once again see one another’s faces much more frequently. But while that may be a very positive thing for some, it could be a foreboding prospect for others. 

People may feel self-conscious about their facial appearances, since masks have been a coping mechanism for interactions with people who are not close. Those living on campus pass by people whom they do not know, and that may even include next-door neighbors. These interactions range from hellos to head nods to no acknowledgement at all, but imagine how different from our current norm it would be if at some point, when it is deemed safe, facial coverings become unnecessary. Seeing a consistent set of people every day during a pandemic and eventually revealing the bottom half of the face to all of them can be daunting. 

Wearing a mask has helped students abandon the emotional labour that comes with smiling, a reality on campus as much as in the rest of the world. As unimportant in the grand scheme of things as it may be, humans often overthink small interactions, like how they move their mouth in practicing acknowledgement. Determining when it is appropriate to smile is not easy, and masks have provided an escape. Transitioning to normalcy can be a difficult adjustment considering just how often people on campus see others whose bottom half of their faces are obscured. I suspect that this reality may resonate most with on-campus first-years who began their Vassar lives amid the pandemic. 

As the goalposts in the transition to normalcy shift back and forth due to mixed health updates and occasional upticks in COVID-19 cases, what’s encouraging is that action inside and outside of the government is being taken to charge forward. With the long awaited end to the pandemic comes jittery anticipation for one vitally important part of life—fun. From a mental health and socialization perspective, children, teenagers and young adults are among the groups most impacted by a pandemic. As a result, students may envision parties, travel, concerts and worry-free gatherings as they hear of news suggesting incoming normalcy. A galvanizing reset in social life is not only welcomed, but fantasized about. I myself am so eager to be around large groups of people comfortably and hug my closest friends. This anticipation could, however, have unintended consequences on some students’ mental health. The reality is that not everybody on campus has the invigorating and mentally satisfying social lifestyles that they would want, and that may not change with the start of a new, largely COVID-19-free life. Students may find themselves underwhelmed. 

A Boston Globe article asserting the need for parents to pay attention to teenagers’ mental health suggests that attempts to re-acclimate after a period of social isolation, especially for students most dependent on that aspect of growth, may be met with disappointment if the bar is not kept low. A return to normalcy could be a very slow process, and it could fail to meet people’s expectations. There is an element of social stamina that may be necessary to re-engage with others, which can be a real source of anxiety. Our initial transition into the COVID-19 era featured a rapid restructuring of social interactions. As a result, after more than a year, flexing that social muscle as we hope to spend more time outdoors with people and engage physically with others may become exhausting and nerve-wracking. 

Taking all of these realities into consideration, Vassar should strengthen its mental health services for those who may need them. It is important that the administration avoid oversimplifying the manner in which the pandemic timeline affects college students. If normalcy were to reappear during a time at which students were on campus, we need to ask the important questions about how we can best facilitate interactions and changes in such a manner that will mitigate transitional side effects. The Vassar student body has suffered a deterioration in mental health during this pandemic, notably due to isolation. Now excitement and anxiety coexist in the anticipation for this new upcoming journey towards normalcy. How can the administration do its best as a guiding force in the coming months?

The College should include the aforementioned realities about transitioning to normalcy in the action that they take going forward. Being underwhelmed, self-consciousness, social anxiety and concerns caused by the student’s circumstances are valid and must be heard. I believe this can be addressed through a more direct outreach by the Vassar administration through surveys conducted on a regular basis. After all, such a course of action can also provide students with a space to reflect, while the administration uses input to zero in on how it can help students. 

Vassar offers free self-care services on their website, as well as off-campus services within the community. A centralized database that includes tools to tackle concerns created by the upcoming collective transition could increase the impact of these resources. While the administration is not an all-encompassing force and cannot revolutionize students’ mental health, it can do its best to mitigate the detrimental effects of the transition by connecting on-campus, community, and online resources to the relevant guidelines. In the meantime, if you feel anxious about normalcy, watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s relevant to social interaction, and it will help you feel light-hearted.

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