In this Pod-Tone 292 standalone episode, host Lily Glaser takes a moment to check-in with students and reflect on how they feel. Taking the end of Columbia’s first fully virtual year as a moment of pause, students discuss the state of their mental health 13 months into a global pandemic. COVID-19 ushered in rapid change, isolation, and impending fear of what is to come. What takeaways, skills, or mentalities do they plan to integrate into a future return to normalcy?
[Lily Glaser]: Today, we are looking at the mental health of Columbia and Barnard students. I think right now, as we are closing out the spring semester and this life-changing academic year, it is the perfect moment for a bit of reflection or, perhaps, a communal check-in. What are people thinking, and quite simply, what are they feeling?
COVID-19 has put the global community into a pressure cooker—intensifying the preexisting issues of everyday life. So, will mental health truly improve when we have reached herd immunity and things return to relative “normalcy,” or is that a far-fledged fallacy?
Despite social distancing mandates, it is impossible to evade the repercussions of the pandemic. Social isolation has, for some, functioned as a time of reflection and internal analysis. In order to find out what this pause has taught people, I went out and interviewed a few students.
We began with a quick check-in. “How are you feeling right now, like in this exact moment?”
[Solomon Fox]: Lily, that’s a great question. To give some context to your listeners, we are sitting right outside my residence hall on a nice bench in the cool breeze. I had a really nice day, and I would say I’m feeling all right. A little tired, a little hungry, but lovely to be here and lovely to speak with you.
[Julia Rudy]: I feel really good. I went to bed really late last night, so it’s been kind of a slow start for me, but I’m feeling so happy that the sun is out. That’s a big game changer. I’m feeling really good at this point.
[Sadie Klaus]: I am a sophomore at Barnard. I’m studying economics and math, and it’s sunny outside, so I’m having a good time.
[Naomi Walthour]: In this moment, I’m loving the sun on my shoulders. I thought it was gonna be cold today, but it’s actually really nice, so I’m excited.
[Aliza Abusch-Magder]: Today, I’m feeling really calm and centered. Yeah.
[Lily]: Why is that?
[Aliza]: The sunshine’s nice.
[Lily]: Quite interesting. We’re all in tune with the weather. When asking, “How are you?” everyone turned outside of themselves. I have an inkling that, though it was 60 degrees and sunny, the weather was not the perfect description of how everyone was feeling. So, “besides the weather, how are you feeling?”
[Sadie]: I’m feeling kind of floaty today, to be honest with you. I forgot to take my meds last night. So I’ve been having a kind of weird day.
[Zafir]: To be honest, rather haggard. I’m very tired and burnt out throughout the semester. It’s been very hectic, and we just got news that the strike will be paused. So, classes go back. So, it’s certainly going to be a very big change in my schedule and many other students’, and it’s quite difficult to grapple with really because—as if the pandemic wasn’t enough—we had to deal with labor strikes and the whole Zoom format. So, it takes a toll on one’s mental health and psyche.
[Lily]: Sunshine and a nice breeze are not the sole variables that affect our mood and do not necessarily reflect our inner status.
We look to external factors to gauge how we are doing. Ominous clouds with a chance of rain, grades, awards, achievements, amount of friends, invites to parties, likes on Instagram, Columbia Confessions mentions—are all so powerful in affecting how we feel.
The idea of hinging one’s self-worth on the achievements and approval of others hits a little too close to home.
Oh yeah, there is also that super fun impostor syndrome that runs rampant on Columbia’s campus. Being surrounded by high-achieving, seemingly perfect people can get to you and make you feel different, insufficient, even less than. This is especially true in a community and university with high standards and a relentless workload.
If you are not applying for internships, studying for the LSAT, or curating your resume, are you truly living up to your potential? On campus, it can feel like there is only one right path. It can feel like there is a specific goal to attain, and if you stray away from that tightly wound path, you will be chastised or looked down upon.
Sarah DeSouza, a Columbia College junior, comments on the atmosphere of the University.
[Sarah DeSouza]: I think a lot of the environment that Columbia itself cultivates is very, “these are the things that you have to do in order to do well in this world, and these are the places that you’re going to go after.”
[Lily]: Students like Mariame Sissoko, Barnard College first-year, push mental health to the wayside in the name of academics.
[Mariame Sissoko]: Literally for the past five years, since I realized mental health was a thing, it’s not a priority. Academics is a priority, especially—I’m the daughter of an immigrant. My dad’s a therapist, both my parents are, so mental health is very important. But at the same time, I’m like, “I need to do this academic stuff first, then I can worry about my mental health as long as I’m not actively breaking down.”
[Lily]: We are taught to keep climbing up the ladder of success and bettering ourselves, but is there ever a place where someone can say, “I am enough”? We are so oriented toward what comes next that we lose sight of the present.
Our struggles are never going to leave and new issues will arise. Columbia students often prioritize the next thing on their to-do lists over taking care of their mental health and sanity, but hinging so much of our self-worth on good grades often leads us to neglect critical aspects of our well-being. Luckily, there are mental health resources offered by the University.
For Julia Rudy, a Barnard sophomore, one strategy for learning how to cope with tragedy and grief came from the advice of a therapist at Barnard’s Rosemary Furman Counseling Center following the death of Tess Majors.
[Julia]: At the end of my freshman year semester—fall semester, when all this was happening, I was very overwhelmed and had trouble articulating my feelings, which is very, very new to me. I had never felt that way. And what she did for me was like, “What does your body need right now?” And I had never thought about that. I’d always just been pretty rational about how to deal with my feelings, but she was like, “You don’t need to do anything. You don’t need to think so many steps ahead right now. What do you feel that you need right now?” And I was like, “I’m really tired. I went to bed at 5 a.m.” And she was like, “OK, I think you should take a nap. You don’t need to think about like five steps ahead, like, ‘What should I do? And then what should I do?’ You don’t need a master plan, just take it one step at a time.” And slowing down like that was something that I try to do now. If I’m feeling an extreme emotion, I’m like, “OK, what can I do to calm this down?” Does this mean that I need to just sit in my room and cry? Does it mean that I need to go for a walk? Does it mean I need to call a friend or my mom? What’s the first step that I can take right now?
[Lily]: It is so surprising how easy it is to lose touch with our basic needs. Sometimes, we just need another person to point it out. Julia demonstrates that acknowledging and listening to what we need can be a game changer.
[Lily]: Mariame also found reaching out to the Furman Center to be beneficial.
[Mariame]: But overall, my experience with Furman was pretty good. I was able to get a Black therapist, and that was nice because some of my issues really did come from race. And being able to talk about that openly without feeling like I’m stepping on any toes was just amazing, and it was just a good place to kind of just let my steam off.
[Lily]: For Mariame, it was crucial to have a therapist who shared their identity. This similarity permitted an initial level of comfort and openness.
Often, we either neglect the question of what we can do for ourselves or see it as indulgent, unnecessary, or weak. This outlook on mental health is paralyzing and results in people exacerbating or prolonging their internal struggle.
Taking care of mental health looks different from person to person. Blanket treatment plans, solutions, and statements often leave people unheard or misunderstood.
As we go through our college careers, we should be asking if the University offers enough support. With this in mind, I asked students if they felt Columbia was there for them, if they felt supported, and if they felt they could reach out for help if they needed it.
Aliza Abusch-Magder, a Columbia College first-year, wishes there was someone to bridge the gap between academic affairs and psychological services.
[Aliza]: I don’t have the resources of the college; the college has not been supportive. The resources may be there, but they don’t feel accessible. And there is very much a barrier because of the digital aspect of things. It’s hard to even say, but this is kind of what I would envision for myself. This is what I think would be helpful, though I’m not sure if Columbia has the resources or ability, but you know what, I’ll just put it out there. I have an academic advisor, she is great. She helps me with my academic stuff and makes sure I’m taking the right classes and getting everything I need to get done. But I am someone who has severe anxiety. I’m also someone who is dyslexic, and it would be really, really helpful to have someone who knows a little bit more about the school and about myself.
[Lily]: Zafir Vuiya, a Columbia College first-year, suggested institutional changes outside of counseling and psychotherapy.
[Zafir]: I think it’s all nice and good that we get to learn about “Pride and Prejudice” in LitHum and how to write the argumentative essay in [University Writing], but I’m not sure how this applies to the practicalities of everyday life. What about a class on how to love or how to deal with an uncooperative co-worker or just the things that we actually deal with? It’s one of the many gripes I also have with things like philosophy—how it’s so abstract, and it seems so distant and far away and people like to dress it up in obtuse and erudite language, when really philosophy is really just the ideology of how one lives and how one conducts one’s life. There’s ethics on how we should act, metaphysics on how we should conceive the things around us and whatnot, and I just simply wish that we were taught more in our schools, or differently.
[Lily]: To Sarah, the high demands of work and school, even during a global pandemic, is indicative of a greater issue. Some say capitalism is to blame.
[Sarah]: I think in terms of my own politics, I’m thinking a lot about things like capitalism and the society that we live in that forces us to keep being productive and producing, especially in school. This semester has been super hard for a lot of people, but I’ve been really thinking a lot about how much I’m being asked to produce while still in a state that is pretty much the same as last year.
[Lily]: Even with diversified mental health structures or changes in curriculum, sources of anxiety may still flourish. Is the zeitgeist of 21st century western culture so entrenched with attainment and production that the actions of this Ivy League institution are rendered ineffective?
These are just hypotheticals. In reality, there is plenty of room for improvement on both individual and institutional bases.
Not all students have had the same experience as Sarah. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, some have found solace in the fact that they are not alone in their struggles and their personal standards do not have to be as high.
For Nkima Stephenson, a graduating senior in Columbia College, quarantine provided the distance necessary to not get caught in stress culture.
[Nkima Stephenson]: Compared to in the past, I was just swept up into the culture as soon as I got here because that’s what you’re expected to do. And a lot of students are go, go, go, like you said. And that’s what I thought I needed to do. But I think the pandemic has actually shown me that there’s nothing wrong with taking a step back and taking a break and just like not trying to succeed, quote unquote, all the time.
[Lily]: Sarah has had a similarly reflective experience during quarantine.
[Sarah]: And I’ve also had this last year to really process and think about things. I think it’s meant a lot of just coming to terms with the person that I used to be. One of my friends said that “If you think that you haven’t been changed at all, by this pandemic, you’re delusional, like you’re just wrong.” And that really stuck with me, because I think she’s right. And, you know, maybe I’ve changed for the worse maybe or changed for the better. But I would like to think that some things, especially my more self-reflective mindset about work and what it means to be successful has changed a lot.
[Lily]: Having spent a year online under these circumstances, can we have a moment of reckoning?
When asked “If you had a megaphone and could speak to the entire Columbia community at large, what would you say?” Julia replied:
[Julia]: I just want everyone to breathe. I feel like this is such an incredible school, and it’s filled with so many talented people. And so I just want everyone to know that about themselves. I like Columbia Confessions on Facebook and it’s just so constantly people being so worried about not doing enough or not being enough. And just getting up and going to class is enough, or getting up and spending time with friends. But did you do your homework today? No, that’s enough. College is an experience for all aspects of who you are. It’s not just an academic experience. It’s a social experience. We wouldn’t all live together if it weren’t about more than doing well in school. So I just want everybody to have fun, you know?
[Lily]: So before we instinctively throw ourselves back into our old routines, isn’t it worth asking ourselves what we want to do differently?
We ought to question whether we are pursuing the life we really want to be living. That entails letting go of what we feel we should be doing. This may help us cultivate a more meaningful or enjoyable life.
But for now, let’s listen to Julia and take a deep breath.
• Produced by Sam Hyman
• “Pure of Heart” - Siddhartha Corsus
• “A Convocation” - Chad Crouch
• “Speaker Joy” - Blue Dot Sessions