Mental Health Concerns on the Horizon at Dickinson

We return to campus in the middle of a pandemic; a pandemic that has ravaged communities, destroyed businesses, and tested the social fabric of our country. The pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of daily life, and this is no exception on a college campus. With good intentions, the administration has set new rules in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. Most of these precautions will have the desired effect, but we believe some may backfire in unexpected ways. While not as often discussed, the effects of the virus extend beyond those infected. The hidden costs of this pandemic has been the mental health of Americans across the country, and we worry this problem may soon plague incoming students. 

When looking back at Dickinson, many students credit their love and pride in the institution to the friendships and relationships that were built over their four years. Unfortunately, in the first-year and sophomore populations, these relationships have not been fully formed. There are many first-years that sit in the loneliness of their dorm rooms right now because they are unsure of how to interpret the new COVID-19 restrictions or worried about getting in trouble. We are concerned that this self-isolation in an already unfamiliar environment may lead to a deterioration in mental health for these students. Helping isolated students is not a new problem for college administrators and was an issue even before the pandemic. In a National Alliance on Mental Health survey from 2012, a respondent said, “some of the students most affected or most at risk for mental health conditions are the hardest to reach because they are secluded in their rooms.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing mental health issues across the country and has the potential to do so on campus as well. A CDC study on the effects of COVID-19 points to “Elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were reported by adults in the United States in June 2020.” It continues by stating, “the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%).” Prior to COVID-19, Dickinson offered and actively encouraged a plethora of community activities and organizations. Presently, there is a concern about the lack of socialization opportunities for first-year students in particular. With the rise in mental health risks associated with the pandemic, Dickinson must offer more to the student body.

Instead of just critiquing present policies, let us offer a few concrete solutions that we, as concerned Dickinsonians, think could help improve mental health across campus. 

Our first suggestion is to make first-year students continuously aware of the mental health resources that both Dickinson and the greater Carlisle community offer. These include the Wellness Center’s counseling, virtual groups and workshops, as well as local hotlines focused on providing a safe outlet for students. These resources provide integral support for members of our community. It is important that they are accessible and publicized often. Now more than ever, we find it imperative that the Dickinson administration shares and re-shares these resources with the most vulnerable people.

We also believe that safe socialization, following all CDC precautions, with people outside of one’s      pod would provide social support and lessen the burden of isolation. This would be further facilitated by an open channel for students to ask questions about socializing safely on campus. The channel would allow students to feel they are making responsible decisions to socialize with others and has the added benefit of increasing compliance with existing precautions. If students feel they can have an honest discussion with the administration, they are more likely to accept the rules and follow them. The result is fuller compliance with reasonable COVID-19 precautions and an increase in safe socialization, limiting the spread of the virus and helping to improve mental wellness. 

Through establishing a link to the administration and highlighting existing mental health resources, there can be more healthy socialization opportunities to all on campus. A firepit and s’mores on Morgan Field, an outdoor gym on the patio of the Kline, a bus that takes students to an ice-skating rink (with face coverings and social distancing). The ideas are limitless. The college must be creative and adaptable when thinking of socialization events for students. By making these slight adjustments to the COVID-19 protocols on campus, Dickinson can help protect the mental health of its new students and create an environment where we can all stay safe and thrive together.