UTC Discussion Series Peeks Behind the Curtain at Shared Pandemic Struggles

By Vanessa Willis, Staff Writer —

With mental health struggles being amplified due to the isolation and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has been hosting “A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Surprising Mental Toll of Covid-19”, a series of discussions about how the pandemic has affected students’ mental health. 

The discussions have taken place throughout the spring semester and have featured various guest speakers and given attendees the opportunity to discuss issues and ideas related to mental health in the time of COVID-19. 

The most recent meeting, which took place March 30, included an intern at the counseling center as a speaker. Abigail Smith has seen firsthand how the pandemic has changed lives and altered the expectations of students. 

“Social skills have been very difficult to develop and we have seen a downward trend in freshmen’s confidence because they finally get to college and then they are stuck in their dorm or apartment,” said Smith, “It is triggering things in people. There’s a lot of negative self-talk and self esteem, and there has been an uprise of a lot of students saying they just don’t want to be here anymore.” 

However, as a fellow student, Smith feels as though she has a unique perspective. She is more familiar with the challenges that all students have been facing for the past year than her fellow counselors. This relatability allows her to connect more closely and break through with her patients. 

“It’s amazing to see how just telling somebody ‘I see you, you’re not alone, It’s okay, I’m feeling it too’ is a form of therapeutic intervention,” Smith said. 

The session discussed the feelings of guilt or alienation many students feel when milestones like graduation, weddings, parties, and other events are restricted. Although these cancellations can be devastating, many people feel selfish or wrong for being sad or disappointed given the magnitude of the issues that many people have endured throughout this tragic time. 

Kevin Doyle, an assistant professor and a Mental Health Counseling Program Coordinator at UTC, explained his point of view that limiting sadness is a slippery slope that logically, would also limit happiness. He believes that everyone has faced unique challenges throughout the past year, and that it is important not to compare or delegate what people are allowed to feel. 

“What you carry in your heart and what you experience in this process is your own, and just because it is not something that is not hitting the front page of the newspaper or it is not landing on the obituaries page does not mean that it is not painful for an individual,” Doyle said. 

A study done by The National Library of Medicine found that 71% of college students reported increased levels of anxiety due to the pandemic. The same study also reported that 89% of students experienced a reduced ability to concentrate, and that 86% had sleep problems. 

Whether the cause of these staggering statistics is due to cancelled parties or health concerns is insignificant when one considers the lasting effect it will have on students and their futures. This is what makes candid and open conversations such as “A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Surprising Mental Toll of Covid-19” series so beneficial to students, giving them an opportunity to feel validated, heard, and safe to express their personal experiences.  

Although the series is concluded for the semester, all previous sessions are available on YouTube.

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