Another Gift from COVID-19

By: Lily Johnson (she/her/hers), Boston University

I didn’t used to have depression. The universe gifted it to me as a side effect of the global pandemic of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The feelings of constant fatigue and melancholy were very unfamiliar to me as they began to overwhelm my perspective in late April of 2020. COVID-19 had locked down the world for what seemed to be a never-ending epidemic and all I could think about was the confidence of my professors, reassuring students that we would be returning to campus after spring break just like any other year.

With the stresses of “Zoom University” not being enough, there was also the additional challenge of adapting all previous learning habits with the new COVID restrictions. This meant no more coffee shop homework dates, no more study groups at the student center and more importantly, no more in-person socializing events. College is demanding as it is, but the limited adaptations by universities such as my own (Boston University), made it next to impossible to complete the semester unscathed. For example, my institution implemented an alternative grading method to help offset the negative effect the pandemic had on GPA, but only kept it for the semester the virus broke out- as if the following two semesters had conditions similar enough to life pre-pandemic that there would be no need to protect students from lower grades resulting from the additional stress and depression COVID-19 carried. Even then, being a college student during the breakout of COVID-19 doesn’t mean students’ problems start and stop at academia. College in COVID exacerbated the already present flaws in the academic and education systems while ignoring the inconsistencies present and ultimately added more stressors onto the crowded desks of fatigued students.

Some Key Insights

If I have learned anything meaningful this past year, it has been the importance of prioritizing mental health- even if society and the institutions a person is involved with are behind the curve in providing additional support. The prioritization of mental wellness provides students with the necessary tools to live sustainably within academia, the corporate world, and in daily living. My university did what they could during the continuing unprecedented times, but their lack of adaptation for student life and recognition of growing mental illness among young adults deserves criticism.

Like many college and university students, I was heartbroken to find out I would not be returning to campus until the fall semester, at the earliest. The frustration and disappointment greeted me with open arms on my car ride back to my small hometown in Connecticut, after packing up my dorm room. Traffic on the highways through Boston can be a bit unpredictable at times and resulted in one of my potted cacti spilling off the back car seat and all over the floor of the car, where it broke into countless small pieces. I cried not because of the annoyance at the idea of dragging a vacuum cleaner outside to the car once home or of the necessary repotting and even loss of the cactus plant. I hadn’t yet given myself a chance to breathe or process what leaving my beloved city meant, only because spring break was now over and I needed to put everything into place before classes resumed the following day. The decision to send students home happened on the back end of our spring break, and the lack of extension to make plans on how students were going to finish out the semester left me with little time to grieve the early end of my time in Boston.

Once home, I began an essay that was assigned before the madness had begun a week early. This was my first assignment in my childhood bedroom in almost years, and it was difficult reacclimating for a full house and a sister who loves to scream show tunes. My professor decided to cut out the second midterm and final, leaving only one completed grade in addition to this essay. My first midterm wasn’t my strongest, but I felt confident that my essay writing abilities could pull me up, although I had been counting on the other assignments outlined in the syllabus. What can I say? It wasn’t my best work, but when I received a grade barely above passing, I broke down. Until this point, I had never gotten below a B for an essay, and while I was expecting it to bring up my previous grade, this news was devastating. As most college students would do, I wrote an email immediately to my professor, explaining the stress the pandemic had brought, and hoped he would let me complete any additional work, as he had scratched two assignments from the presented syllabus, or if I could rewrite the paper. These were in fact extenuating circumstances and I had never asked for anything like this previously. If there was any time to have a retry, it would be during a global pandemic, right? He invited me to call him after receiving my email and explained that there was nothing I could do now. Super unfortunate for me, and it was only one class, but this happened to countless other students as well. This was the first instance I felt an indirect penalization within academia, and they would continue.

I took the cut to my GPA pretty hard as I was surrounded by an institution that awarded only honors and warned low grades would deplete graduate school prospects. As I grieved my once spotless average, the loss of my grandmother, and limited social interaction. I also leaned into the depression that was beginning to greet me. I worked two jobs over the summer and the time I didn’t spend working I soon spent in bed, watching endless hours of Netflix. Part of it was the question of what else there was to do. School had me so occupied that it was refreshing to have free time, but not being allowed to spend that time in public or with anyone outside my household made it increasingly difficult to leave bed.

Summer of Activism

It was around this time that the outrage against the death of George Floyd broke, and public outcry pushed the Black Lives Matter Movement back into the public’s view. George Floyd was a Black man murdered by a police officer during an arrest that resulted from one of the four police officers, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck and back for over 9 minutes. The outrage surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death also sparked the promulgation of the murder of Breonna Taylor who was a Black woman fatally shot a (a total of 32 shots fired) in her home by plainly clothed polices officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankinson and Myles Cosgrove after their forced entry of her apartment. These deaths are just two of many unarmed Black men, women and children all victims to the terrors of police brutality. COVID19, however, added some extra spice in terms of the new waves of activism and human rights work that would be produced in the summer of 2020. Previously, I could only learn about the present White supremacy in the U.S. through limited writing assignments with loose prompt requirements.

Activist roles changed with the safety requirements of COVID, specifically the influence that forced quarantines and state lockdowns have had on popularizing conversations about how White supremacy is continually sustained by the United States government. Through upholding White supremacy, many institutions, like the public school system and social media, have failed to provide Black people with the perception of limitless opportunity that I see behind the eyes of my non-Black peers; where stereotypes and institutionalized racism has constantly reinforced a life already planned for us because of what we look like. As much as my professional goals remain high and strong, my view on the micro-level such as “normal” behavior I expect from friends and tolerance I expect from strangers has been deeply impacted. The overflow of Black- supportive media and national protesting have changed my expectations for what life can be like as an African American woman. Throughout my life, I have been constantly under the impression that anything I wanted to learn about the Black struggle would be something I would have to do on my own, and that included breaking down institutionalized racism. I learned here that taking down institutions that uphold White supremacy is not the sole job of Black people and the expectation should be set on the government and nation to dismantle all and every standing momentum that continues to oppress BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color).

The summer of activism flew by as soon as it arrived and in a blink, I found myself packing for a hybrid Fall semester in Boston, which meant although students on and off-campus had the choice of attending lecture asynchronously or in-person, the fear of spreading COVID-19 kept me locked away in my single apartment. I escaped the comfort of my tower for occasional coffee dates and small outdoor gatherings but stayed hidden away from the world for most of that semester, which exponentially complicated my struggles with mental health.

A New Year, Still the Same

As school grew more strenuous, I sought after an official diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder so I could test if medication could help my symptoms and to my surprise, I was diagnosed with both Generalized Anxiety and Major Mood Disorder in September 2020. Although I did recognize myself reflecting symptoms of depression, I didn’t realize that their severity was more than quarantine blues. That fall of 2020 I had lost a lot of weight and could barely sleep or keep an appetite, common symptoms of depression. I didn’t know it yet, but the most difficult part of my college experience was only right around the corner, waiting for me in spring 2021. I continued to take an extra class as I had done the previous two years, and vaccinations seemed a closer dream every day, so I was under the assumption that this semester would be a breeze. I could not have been more wrong.

For so long within the public-school education system I have based my worth on academic performance and it was even one of the deciding factors that helped me choose a university. I had a soft plan to remain in academia for a while and eventually complete the graduate work necessary to end me up with a PhD. My mental health plummeted that spring and my previous priorities and academic skills felt useless. I had days where I couldn’t get out of bed, or my eyes were so puffy that I didn’t feel comfortable keeping my camera on in my Zoom class and the thought of having to possibly explain that would make them even worse.

My days blurred into a constant routine: wakeup at 8am, go to various classes on Zoom, work on homework in between, finish classes around 2pm, continue working until 7 for a quick bite, then continue working until 11pm to go to sleep and do it again the next day. Depression took my appetite, online school destroyed my attention span, and it was now taking me twice as long to complete assignments. With the inability to leave bed, I already had no extra time to spare, and my over prioritization of academics made it easy for my depression to eat more into each day. My seemingly subpar school work ensured I was constantly on edge with the fear of failing or forgetting assignments, and the ineffectiveness of my antidepressants brought thoughts that made me rethink why I was in college at all. Although my mental health was at this point heavily influencing my ability to produce the caliber of academic work that I was used to, I could see no relief. I thought about filling out the school’s disability form but its rigor, length, and request to prove my symptoms became all too intimidating for me to even get past the identification section.

What Now?

Even now as it is over and Spring 2021 is in the past, I still struggle to reflect on the amount of pain and loneliness I experienced. It is summer 2021 now, and I am still recovering from the burnout these past three semesters have presented me with. I look back wishing I took a gap year instead and I look forward hoping I am not in school for another pandemic as I am not sure I will survive it. In a world where only excellence is rewarded, I am currently working on being beautifully average. This past year has taught me that the way I tackle life, trying to be excellent at everything isn’t only unsustainable, but it contributed to the destruction of my mental health. I will continue to put myself back together, all hopefully before the start of my last year at university as I’m sure college students everywhere are. I am not the only one.

Lily Johnson is an undergraduate student at Boston University majoring in Economics with a concentration in African American Studies. Originally from Connecticut, Lily is passionate about environmental and racial justice. She currently works on her university’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Team and serves as a co-president of the professional multi-gender environmental fraternity Epsilon Eta — Pi chapter.

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