During the fall and spring semesters of the 2020-21 academic year, Berry administration has made decisions to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. While these decisions were made out of good intentions and an effort to limit campus outbreaks and continue in-person instruction, students, faculty and staff have faced physical and mental consequences from these decisions.
Before the start of the fall 2020 semester, Berry administration made the decision to shorten on-campus instruction by sending students home after Thanksgiving break until the start of the spring semester. Finals were administered remotely and breaks within the semester were severely reduced, with students having a one-day holiday in October.
The spring 2021 semester is structured similarly. Spring break was omitted and winter break was extended by a week. Holidays during the semester have also been reduced. Good Friday will now be considered a day of instruction, and in lieu of spring break a one-day holiday will be given on March 10.
Other policies put in place this semester to accommodate changes in the pandemic include periodic testing of students, limited attendance of public events and a two-week restriction on off-campus travel.
Throughout winter break, COVID-19 confirmed case numbers continued to increase and Berry restricted off campus travel. The off-campus travel ban caused frustration among students as they had to navigate unanticipated difficulties like buying and storing enough groceries for two weeks. The off-campus restrictions also prevented students from being able to buy school supplies and other materials needed for the start of the semester.
In conjunction with the travel restrictions and anticipation of the coming semester, students felt discouraged after only one week of being on-campus. Many students commented on how exhausted they were already, despite the semester just beginning. For some, it felt as if the two-month-long winter break never happened. These feelings were more strongly felt at the end of the fall semester, with students across campus experiencing pandemic fatigue and burnout.
Last March as events were cancelled, lockdowns went into effect and reality changed, mental health worldwide decreased. According to Inside Higher Ed, research concerning mental health during the pandemic is just beginning to emerge, but it already shows an increase in people experiencing depression symptoms. Inside Higher Ed defines burnout as reacting negatively and experiencing emotional exhaustion with a negative attitude.
The terms ‘pandemic fatigue’ and ‘pandemic burnout’ also emerged during 2020 to describe exactly how people worldwide were emotionally and mentally coping with the effects of the pandemic. Banner Health essentially attributes recent increases in mental burnout and fatigue to COVID-19 and the pandemic’s effects on the world. According to the University of Michigan Medicine Psychiatry Department, college students are already more prone to loneliness and have higher rates of anxiety and depression than the general population. Add the COVID-19 pandemic with the social isolation, physical distancing and wariness of being in close quarters with anyone, and it creates a perfect storm for mental health problems in college students.
However, there is one positive to working through another shortened difficult semester in the COVID-19 pandemic; Berry students have already done this once. We have one shortened semester under our belt. Oftentimes, repeated difficulties become significantly easier to navigate upon the second attempt. Learn from the shortcomings of last semester. If burnout pervaded your semester, put actions in place that will help fend it off. Build in “mental health days” and create strategies that work to reduce stress. Only you know yourself best, so do what works for you.
Be aware of your own mental health, and take advantage of resources provided to you. Accepting the new world of COVID-19 can be difficult, so do not get irritated with yourself. Take it day by day and give yourself grace. Find help where it works best for you. Whether that is through attending religious services, receiving therapy or counseling or talking to a trusted friend, work toward helping yourself.
The University of Michigan Medicine psychiatry department recommends a few things to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Accepting that it is okay to not be okay with the current state of the world, practicing a good sleep schedule and maintaining a routine are very important tips for navigating a pandemic. Additionally, connecting with others virtually or in different innovative ways can vastly improve someone’s mental health.
Facing reality in a world enduring a pandemic will adjust our expectations and allow us to fully immerse ourselves into the present. There is one caveat: do not allow this reality to dampen your spirit. We have witnessed the world bend to the pandemic, but Berry is special because we did not have to sacrifice large parts of the Berry experience. Be thankful for our new normal within the “Berry Bubble,” and do not be afraid to also lament what we have sacrificed.
Most of all, know that you are not alone. It can be terrifying to be vulnerable and open up to those that you are closest to because their opinions matter the most, but that is why it matters. Your experiences may not be universal, but the pandemic is. The world is currently processing the effects of the pandemic, and to help this effort and begin the healing process, we have to begin on an individual level.