Students’ mental health marred by COVID-19 isolation

Collegian file photo.

BRIDGET EARLY | MANAGING EDITOR | bfearly@butler.edu

ANDREW FAVAKEH | ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR | dfavakeh@butler.edu

This is a multi-part opinion series about Butler University’s back-to-school plan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within the course of a week, Maya Joseph was tested for COVID-19 four times.

On Sep. 21, the sophomore psychology and education major noticed the first hints of a sore throat. Try as she might, she couldn’t ignore it, and noted it on her daily health screening. The next day, she underwent the necessary COVID-19 test, hoping it would come back negative. She hadn’t been exposed to COVID-19 that she knew of, so what was there to worry about?

Joseph’s first test came back positive. She spent the next two days in Ross Hall.

On the morning of Thursday Sep. 24, the Health Services staff asked Joseph to return to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a re-test, which she obligingly underwent.

Joseph’s second test came back inconclusive.

After the second test, Butler Health Services offered Joseph an option: she could either leave campus immediately and await her follow-up test results from home, or she could continue to isolate in Ross Hall. Joseph chose Ross Hall to prevent spreading the virus to her hometown. Plus, she assumed she’d only stay in the dorm for a short while.

Joseph packed a bag of her things, bidding her sorority house a hasty goodbye as she hurried into Ross Hall and hunkered down in her new room.

Later that same day, Joseph made her way to Hinkle to get her inconclusive results settled, once and for all. Since Joseph submitted to another PCR test, she was told to await her results for another three to seven days. A call from Butler Health Services the next day, however, gave her hope.

Joseph’s third test came back negative.

Joseph was so excited that she called her parents, who, in a sudden burst of excitement, decided they would drive down to Indiana for the weekend.

Joseph was determined to make the most of her newfound freedom and recover from the time she’d spent confined in Ross. She stopped to visit friends in Fairview, went for tacos at Condado and attended a social gathering. Things were finally looking up, and Joseph couldn’t have been happier to finally get on with her semester. 

For those having difficulty keeping track, this puts Joseph’s testing tally at one positive, followed by one inconclusive, followed by a second negative and two days in Ross Hall. You can imagine the confusion.

After three days of pandemonium, Joseph stopped by Hinkle for a fourth test — this time a rapid test. Since her third test had been negative, Joseph was all but certain that she’d pass a fourth test without trouble; still, she went anyway, if only for peace of mind.

While awaiting her test results, Joseph went to another social gathering, this time with her closest sorority sisters on her apartment porch. Two and a half hours into the social gathering, she received a call from Health Services.

Joseph’s fourth test came back positive.

If she wanted to return to Ross Hall, the nurse told Joseph, she had 30 minutes to notify her close contacts, pack her belongings and relocate. Joseph, though, was frozen. She could barely gather herself. Who had she infected? Her parents? Her friends? What would they think of her, being so careless?

“I was worried I exposed [my friends and family], and that they were bringing it back, and that our town was gonna have a big breakout of it now; I was worried to be one of the first cases in my house and one of the only cases on campus — I just didn’t want to be responsible for us having to go home again,” Joseph said.

Joseph stayed in Ross Hall for the next 10 days — more than enough time to throw her entire life into turmoil. Between her eating routine, capacity to exercise and entertain herself, and her academic bandwidth, Joseph’s sojourn in Ross changed everything — especially her mental health.

***

Floppy disc disposal, Dick Hamm’s retirement notice and a homogenous array of job fair schedules were just a few of the items topping the university’s “Butler Today” listserv during the first months of the semester. But while students looking to recycle their unwieldy collection of pre-Y2K technology had no issue finding resources to help them, students in desperate need of mental health resources during a global pandemic were left in the dark.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused major mental health problems — especially for young people, according to the CDC. One recent survey showed that nearly two-thirds of 18- through 24-year-olds experience an anxiety or depressive disorder — the highest at-risk age group. Roughly a quarter of the same age group is also at serious risk for suicidal thoughts, and a quarter rely on substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress or emotions.

“I would be nervous about that kind of stuff as an administrator,” Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University, said. “…As a mental health provider, I would be concerned that something like that would make somebody, like, exponentially more depressed, more at-risk to hurt themselves, or you know, at least at-risk to drink a lot, do something risky, or at least feel really, really bad. If they aren’t that kind of person where they would actually hurt themselves, I just think it would have detrimental mental health effects.”

Particularly for many students isolating in Ross Hall, mental health resources have been an afterthought at best. Though Butler prefers that COVID-19-infected students head to their permanent residence once they test positive, the university reserved Ross as an alternative isolation unit for students who are unable to return home.

It’s important to note that among other issues, the 68-year-old dormitory is infamous for its lack of air conditioning, which forces students to endure the tail end of Indiana summers on full blast. In fact, Ross is the only dorm on campus without air conditioning. When coupled with a serious respiratory virus like COVID-19, Ross’ heat and circulation issues make it the least ideal dorm for students to isolate in. A Butler student who spoke to Collegian reporter Alison Miccolis on Sept. 1 told her that the experience was miserable.

“It was very, very hot,” the Butler student said. “The fan [provided by Butler University] did a little, but it did not do a lot to mask how humid it was outside. It felt like it was circulating warm air and it made it a little difficult to breathe.”

Sarah Fritz, who isolated in Ross Hall for ten days after testing positive on Aug. 25, noted that her standing connection to a therapist on campus was her only method of support.

“I’m a junior, obviously, so I got adjusted to it really easily,” Fritz, a junior political science major, said. “I’m mature enough now that I can spend time alone and be completely okay with it and not really mind. And I could get myself to focus on schoolwork, and honestly, I was so sick. I really didn’t care. But it was kind of depressing at first, or really kind of anxiety-inducing, you know? It was just really weird. It felt at some point, like, no, they don’t really have anything else, like anywhere else to put people, and they don’t really know what else to do. But it felt like you were in prison for a minute there, we couldn’t really do anything.”

For first-years, new students and students who have never worked through the counseling center, the idea of tracking down resources while sick and overwhelmed is a step too far. And the darkened hallways and eerie quiet of Ross, which at present could serve as a setting from “The Twilight Zone,” only heighten the fear and stress interlinked with a positive diagnosis. 

Even the unsettling hallways of Ross are a relief to students when compared with the suffocating monotony of their rooms — since students can’t leave the building, their ability to exercise and move around is severely limited. Joseph, who enjoys going on walks, called the isolation and quarantine team director to ask whether she could walk in the courtyard in the middle of Ross Hall. Her request was denied because it was against fire code for anyone to walk in the courtyard, pandemic notwithstanding. Joseph popped open the window screen in her room to escape her lurking, claustrophobic restlessness; her friend blew bubbles into her room from the sidewalk, her only respite from indoors.

The lack of mental health resources and concerning conditions for students isolated in Ross Hall horrified Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut. 

“I’m terrified, because there are cases of younger people having very serious problems,” Pagoto said. “Having read stories of people experiencing symptoms that are more severe, the panic and fear that people report is quite profound, especially if their breathing is affected. It’s very scary, especially not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

The problems inside Ross don’t end with the building itself. Though students are at a uniquely vulnerable point in their lives when they are isolating in Ross, there is seemingly nobody on call to support them should their health — mental or physical — deteriorate. Bridget Bucey, the interim director of residential life, asserted in a Sept. 3 email interview with The Butler Collegian that one member of the staff would be residing in the building in case of emergency, but Fritz is skeptical.

After locking herself out of her room as she went to retrieve her food, Fritz sought the help of the aforementioned “isolation and quarantine team” member, but after abandoning her search and calling the university, she was told by the university that the team member did not exist.

“So I was calling Residence Life, all that stuff, trying to figure out if there was an RA in the building because I thought there was, because they told us originally that there had been — or there was supposed to be,” Fritz said. “And they said there wasn’t one. I had to have BUPD come and unlock the door for me… I thought there was an RA. They told us there was an RA there. And then I never saw one, and I don’t know, all I know is I got locked out and they told me there wasn’t one there. When I called ResLife, they directed me to ResCo.”

Ross, then, stands empty, other than a handful of ailing undergraduates. Any deterioration in their mental or physical health, it seems, will happen in total isolation. Toeing the line where students’ lives are concerned is both disconcerting and infuriating — truly a tragedy waiting to happen.

***

Long after the blaze of a COVID-19 infection, mental health effects still smolder. While some only experience COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks, research has identified the presence of  “long-haulers,” who wrestle with the aftereffects of the virus for months. One of the most persistent symptoms for long-haulers, according to a study from the Indiana School of Medicine, is anxiety.

Because students are already an at-risk category for mental health, keeping tabs on all students — but especially long-hauler students — is essential to their health and safety, Pagoto said.

“I would hope [long-haulers] are on the university’s radar, the psychological experience of [contracting COVID-19],” Pagoto said. “Coping [with COVID-19] is necessary. It’s a real issue that I think the universities will have to start thinking about, especially as there’s more and more students who’ve been infected. A lot of the symptoms of long-hauling are things like extreme fatigue, brain fog. These are things that would obviously affect people’s ability to go to class or to function. It sounds like it’s not necessarily there yet with the proper care being available, but hopefully that will improve … your leadership and student health. At [UCONN], leadership was very interested in hearing what students are saying, what their needs were. So I hope that your university is providing an opportunity for students to voice their concerns as the people.”

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One Comment;

  1. Jason Sayem said:

    Covid Pandemic causes me severe anxiety and i couldn’t find any proper solution before reading this.

    Bridget and Andrew thanks for this informative post, really worth reading,

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