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How Penn State students say the pandemic has affected their mental health

Beaver Stadium
Becky Marcinko
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Students stand in Beaver Stadium's student section during the home football game against Ball State on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 in University Park, Pa.

This fall, Beaver Stadium filled up with tens of thousands of students and lines for State College bars stretched down sidewalks on the weekends.

“Going to the football games and actually feeling that energy and being around a lot of people was definitely different than I’m used to, but it was definitely exciting, and I was glad to be a part of it,” said sophomore Desiree Mecca.

Mecca comes from a small hometown. She said last fall’s rather bare campus due to the coronavirus allowed for an easier transition to Penn State in some ways. But the quarantining and masking could also be lonely.

“It definitely took a toll,” she said. “It’s just not a great feeling.”

Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Penn State, worked on a study that analyzed the pandemic’s effects on students’ mental health.

“It's just not the same for college students who really go to college for that social experience,” Newman said.

The study looked at changes in the prevalence of mental disorders across multiple universities, with a total of more than 11,000 student participants.

“We took measures of diagnostic criteria," Newman said. "So these were measures that determined whether people met diagnostic criteria for a number of disorders immediately before the pandemic hit, and then right after the pandemic hit for several months, in different cohorts.”

They found no change throughout the pandemic in levels of generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, anorexia, insomnia and suicidality. Post-traumatic stress disorder decreased.

But Newman said student participants showed an increase in alcohol use disorder, major depressive disorder, binge eating and bulimia. They were also more likely to have a comorbidity, the presence of two or more disorders.

“I just think that everything requires a little bit greater effort,” Newman said. “You know, to connect with somebody, it's not as easy. Maybe some people may not be as motivated to make, and make, that extra effort.”

Sophomore Lauren Carragher said it was difficult spending most of her time in her dorm room last year.

“When I was a freshman, I didn’t have any classes on campus,” Carragher said. “So it was completely different for me.”

Carragher said she thinks her mental health has improved this semester compared to the last academic year. She now enjoys going to parties and being able to participate in clubs in person.

Mecca said this semester has improved her mental health as well. In addition to going to football games, she’s enjoying smaller things like seeing more people in the HUB-Robeson Center.

“I obviously don’t love wearing masks, like with being vaccinated and the fact that a majority of people on campus are vaccinated,” Mecca said. “But, I’ll do what I have to do to be able to go to class and make it as normal as possible. If I’m not spreading COVID to anyone, then I’m fine with it.”

Mecca said transitioning back to more normalcy has been challenging at times.

“So having that period of time where you don’t have any social interaction, it makes it really difficult to be able to talk to people again,” she said.

Even though vaccines are now widely available in the United States and some restrictions have been lifted, Newman said connecting with people can still be more difficult and can contribute to “pandemic burnout.”

She said the effects of COVID on students’ mental health are not over yet.

“I don't know how soon things are going to, or if ever things are going to, quote unquote, ‘go back to normal,’” Newman said. “Unless there's more widespread decreases in cases, I think that some of this is going to be prolonged. So somehow I think we need to find some solutions.”

With rising cases and concerns about the Omicron variant, Penn State recently announced that masking will continue on campus for the spring semester.