We're Still in a Pandemic. Let's Act Like It.

When the Editorial Board brainstormed this week’s editorial, we initially considered writing about the lessons of pandemic. Like others, we had been seduced by recent rhetoric in politics and the media that the pandemic is soon coming to a close. But even as vaccines become more widely available and cases go down, we realized that the negative impacts of this pandemic are far from over. 

The recent death by suicide of Yale first-year Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum served as a sobering reminder that the mental health of college students is still majorly suffering as a result of this prolonged pandemic. We reflected on the significant psychological toll that the past year has taken on our own college community. The Zoom fatigue, the necessary diminishment of social life and the elimination of fall and spring breaks to minimize the risk of spreading Covid-19 have made this school year particularly challenging for all of us. 

So this week, in light of Shaw-Rosenbaum’s passing, we have instead decided to write on the responsibility of the administration, the faculty, the staff and the student body in prioritizing one another’s mental well-being. 

Mental health woes among college students have been on the rise for years, with recent surveys indicating 60 percent of college students have struggled with anxiety and 40 percent have struggled with depression. Student loan debt, high-pressure family environments, the 24/7 news cycle and the simple difficulty of adjusting to life with newfound independence in a new community have all been associated with this rise. The rise in loneliness and decrease in mental health care accessibility that have come with the pandemic have not made things any easier. An alarming CDC survey found that just over a quarter of college-age respondents “seriously considered suicide” in just June of 2020 alone, more than double the average rate for other age groups.

Clearly, mental health is an issue that needs to be taken seriously and, so far, it seems like the Amherst administration has acknowledged that necessity. The college maintained and extended some of its mental health services for both on-campus and remote students. Students living on-campus or in the state of Massachusetts can receive counseling and other psychiatry services from the Counseling Center. Out-of-state students can access My SSP, a free resource provided by the college that provides mental health counseling through chat, phone and video. And, like many other colleges and universities around the country, Amherst scheduled intermittent days off throughout March and April to replace a normal spring break. 

Rather than focusing our entreaties solely on administrative policy, we instead write to every one of our community members imploring you to be considerate of the often unseen difficulties that we are all facing in this historical moment. Many of us are separated from our families and local communities as well as the college community that we have come to love, robbing us of crucial support structures in a difficult time. The pressure may be even worse for first-years as many had to transition to a completely new environment during a time when remaining distant from others is a public health mandate. Without spontaneous and sustained in-person interaction, the desire to build strong bonds with their peers, professors and campus staff members has become much harder to fulfill.

Like our fellow editor at The Daily Princetonian, we urge leaders and authorities of all stripes within the community to practice leniency and build a culture of vulnerability in which people feel comfortable speaking on their problems and confident that solutions will be provided. For student leaders, this could mean letting your team take a night off or following up with a new member to check in. For professors, it might mean being willing to soften a due date or finding a time to meet one-on-one with a student in another time zone. To put it more broadly, they should be more receptive to the individual struggles of their students. And for management staff, it may mean being empathetic and considerate of the ways in which college employees’ personal lives may be upended off campus. 

Even those of us who don’t occupy such positions can still help one another just by reaching out and checking in. Making plans for a Facetime call or a virtual movie night can be helpful in creating and maintaining the connections that safeguard our mental health and make college such a rewarding experience. Community members should do their best to take advantage of safe in-person meet-ups as well, like the Masked Mammoth Meet-Up Day held on March 19. Taking time with your loved ones to rest and relax is one of the most healing things you can do during a pandemic that has forced us all to be so separate.

Though the main focus of this editorial is to cover the ways community members can take care of one another, we would be remiss to ignore an easy policy change that could help as well. During the day-off on Friday, March 19, President Biddy Martin herself acknowledged that taking advantage of break would be hard for many students, who usually spend their Fridays catching up on work rather than relaxing anyway. While we respect the college’s efforts to take care of students’ mental health, we also believe that intermittent and brief breaks (like those that are currently planned) will necessarily lead to this undesirable result. This structure of breaks puts the onus on students and professors, rather than administrators, to choose days to ignore the pile of work ahead of them. This means that some students have gotten random days and weeks off from professors who designated their own ‘Spring Breaks,’ and others have gotten nothing at all from professors who were less concerned.

A standardized and reasonably long break schedule, like our usual Spring Break, that is independent from professors’ variant leniency would solve this issue. Missed classes could be made up at the end of the year as they usually are and community members wouldn’t waste the whole break working because the break would be too long for the work to fill. We’re not suggesting that a lack of breaks is solely responsible for mental health degradation, but it’s worth noting that many of us have been working for months in a row without any real chance to take a pause and breathe. 

Ultimately, we want our readers to consider the effects that their action and inaction can have on those around them and the fragility of mental health in a time when interpersonal connection and seeking help have been harder than ever. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Shaw-Rosenbaum and the Yale community more broadly. Hopefully, in building a culture of accepting vulnerability (rather than avoiding it), we can prevent further needless and tragic young deaths and truly support each other in dealing with unparalleled social and emotional upheaval.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline that provides 24/7 free and confidential support for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. Call the lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

To talk with a counselor from the Amherst College Counseling Center, schedule a session by calling 413-542-2354, or email [email protected]. On-call counselors are available 24/7 at the same number. 

If you are out-of-state, you can receive free mental health care through MySSP. To access MySSP, call 1-866-743-7732 anytime or download the MySSP app in the App Store or Google Play Store.

Additional resources can be found here.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 9; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5)