The return to the ‘old normal’

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

With restrictions being gradually phased out and college campuses welcoming back students, Aoife Rooney discusses the consequences of the return to ‘normal life’ for some students.

The inevitable mass return to college campuses is taking place this week, with campuses across the country welcoming back students, many for the first time. Any normal college year brings with it various challenges and worries, but this year is faced with its own unique set of obstacles. Not only is there a larger than usual number of students arriving on campus for the first time in comparison to other years, but upperclassmen make the return to campus after an 18 month stint of at-distance learning. These factors are undoubtedly going to lead to feelings of stress and anxiety amongst students. 

In a study performed by UCD School of Psychology, where 19,000 adolescents and young adults were surveyed, it was revealed that 26% of 18-25 year olds experience severe anxiety. This is a pre-pandemic statistic. The number presumably significantly higher now, there being many reports about the effect Covid-19 related restrictions have had on the collective mental health of young people. Approximations have been made to indicate that as a result of the pandemic and its related restrictions, one in five people are experiencing “psychological distress.” 

“Being in a room or lecture hall with any number of people carrying Covid is terrifying”

These problems, while exacerbated by the pandemic, can be further aggravated by the return to college and life in-person in general. Many students are anxious at the concept of having to return to a campus like UCD, from both a social aspect, but also due to the fact that exposure to Covid-19 is also a risk. One second year student expressed their concern at having to return to a large campus setting “Even though many people are fully vaccinated, the possibility of catching [Covid-19] will never have been higher, and although I should be fine if I do, the fear of spreading it to other people close to me is one that fuels my anxiety.” The potential for transmission, despite large scale vaccination, is still very much a concern, “being in a room or lecture hall with any number of people carrying Covid is terrifying.” Despite having a certain level of anxiety about returning to campus, it was less so associated with the social aspect of the college experience “I do not have as much anxiety as other people about meeting people and socialising again.” 

UCD is not introducing a vaccine mandate for on-campus activities, but regardless, the overall cohort of college attending students are members of an age category that saw a high vaccine uptake. Despite this, students are still concerned about the potential of catching Covid-19, regardless of whether they are at risk. As the second year student stated “my family is particularly vulnerable, as am I myself.” Another factor that may be cause for concern with regard to attendance at a large university campus with respect to Covid-19 is despite high levels of vaccine uptake, there are concerns around recent conversations about the longevity of protection the Covid-19 vaccines provide. While immunisation through the means of a vaccine significantly decreases a person’s symptoms in the case that they contract the Coronavirus, like the flu vaccine, recommendations are being made to introduce booster shots. With immunity potentially weaning, and young people being at the end of a long list of those eligible for boosters, there is cause for concern here from students in UCD “I'm worried that I'll reach a point where the effectiveness of the two shots will decrease, so much so that I'll catch it and spread it.”

On the other hand, many students are not feeling the same anxiety surrounding Covid-19. MSc Primary Care student, Aisling Heavey said that she does “not feel anxious at the moment.” Working in a healthcare setting has left her well versed in the use of PPE and having to work in high risk settings “In my role as a physiotherapist, we take precautions to protect the public and ourselves [with] PPE, temperature checks, screening questions.” Despite not being especially worried or anxious about catching Covid-19, she believes there are steps UCD should take in order to mitigate the spreading of the virus to the best of their ability, “I think there should be screening procedures in place for students attending campus and lectures.” Heavey also mentioned that “temperature checks may also be useful on entering lectures or buildings where there is not adequate ventilation.” While UCD are putting an onus on personal responsibilities for things like social distancing and mask wearing, Aisling believes that “the university should have very clear policies on mask wearing and responsibilities of students and staff for protecting others and enforce these as appropriate.” 

The University Observer spoke to Dr. Eadaoin Lysaght from UCD student counselling services, who said that Covid-19 related anxiety was less likely, and that more students would struggle with the social aspect of college “anxiety is more likely to relate to social issues and reintegrating on campus or coming to campus for the first time”. Despite the fact that some students may struggle to  “adapt to the change to in-person teaching”, Dr. Lysaght argued that “it is likely that most students will enjoy the college experience more when they return to campus”, and that students will “find that they can learn more easily with interactive in-person teaching.” 

Dr Lysaght encourages students to contact necessary supports if they are feeling anxious: “There is support available to all students who are experiencing mental health struggles and I would encourage those affected to speak to their Student Advisors or our Chaplains and to also engage with the Student Counselling service or the medical team in the Student Health Service if their difficulties are becoming overwhelming."

“The university should have very clear policies on mask wearing and responsibilities of students and staff for protecting others and enforce these as appropriate”

While the concept of things returning to normal can be a source of stress and anxiety for many, there is solace to be taken in the heightened support available to students on a college level. While many lectures will be in-person, larger ones will be offered online, so those who are anxious, whether it be from a Covid perspective or otherwise can opt to attend from the comfort of their homes, and practice social distancing and mask wearing measures when they need to attend lectures in person. The ‘old normal’ is not back yet, and with the societal fatigue the population seem to have collectively suffered, it is worth considering if it is a place that can be reached in the near future.