Max was full of optimisim about his freshman year of college. But just after he’d moved into his dorm his school announced remote learning. Furthermore, freshman were required to live in the dorms and observe social distancing due to Covid-19. Socially isolated in his dorm room, away from his friends and family, Max’s mental health deteriorated. After three months of learning alone on his laptop, Max had developed clinical depression.
The coronavirus pandemic has put universities at risk of significant economic shortfalls when students do not live in dorms. But colleges that require students to live in the dorms put those students’ mental health at risk.
Max had never had mental health problems. He was a social guy with a can-do attitude. When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted his last year of high school, he made a plan for his freshman year of college. If the pandemic required remote learning he would stay home and attend community college. But if he could live in dorms and attend classes, he would matriculate at his expensive four year university.
That expensive university promised that learning would be in person, so his parents moved him into the dorm and said their goodbyes. Two days later the university announced that all learning would be remote. That was when Max realized he was trapped. Freshman were required to live in the dorms unless they had a medical diagnosis that made it impossible.
His roommate left school after only a few weeks and Max spent the next three months alone in his dorm room, staring at gray walls. By the time he made it home for fall break, he had progressed through anxiety into depression.
Remote learning makes sense for public health as the Covid-19 pandemic rages out of control. And some students really do learn better living on campus. But if psychologists were going to design a scenario intended to drive 18-year-olds into depression, what Max’s college did would be it.
Max’s freshman fall demonstrates three key factors tailor made to create depression: social isolation, an injury to trust, and being helplessly trapped.
Under normal circumstances, freshman year is a sensitive time for any student. These newly minted adults are leaving home for the first time, and that means leaving social networks and familiar environment behind. Typically freshmen compensate by forming new social groups. But that is impossible when appropriate social distancing isolates them alone in a small room for months.
Research shows that social isolation is harmful to mental health. One systematic review of eighty studies found a strong link between social isolation and adverse mental health in children and adolescents. More specifically, when social isolation led to loneliness, it was the loneliness that led to mental health symptoms. Of particular importance, the studies showed that it was the duration of the loneliness that was the most harmful, not the intensity.
So being a little bit lonely for a long time is more likely to lead to depression that being extremely lonely for a short time. Three months is a long time.
Max was a conscientious person, the kind who followed the public health rules for social distancing and mask wearing on his campus. And he felt betrayed. “The college tricked us into moving into the dorms for their bottom line,” he told me.
Max is not his real name, and he is not just one person. Max is a composite of a number of my patients, male and female, who came to me over fall break for treatment of mental health problems they never had before. But each of them told me the same heartbreaking stories. “Come on, the university had to know what they were doing. They just waited to tell us until we moved in,” said Max.
His sense of betrayal only deepened when Max read over the form on his university’s letter head, where I had written his diagnosis.
The violation of trust by an authority figure shakes our trust in other people. A recent study from PEW research found that people who have less trust in others were more likely to experience depression during Covid-19. When universities promised students they could move in because learning would be in person, and then told them otherwise 1-2 days after they moved in, they injured trust.
Helplessness and feeling trapped
One of the best known theories of depression is learned helplessness. First used in 1967 by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, learned helplessness refers to someone who stops trying to change their circumstances because they’ve been unable to for too long.
The theory came out of Seligman and Maier’s research on dogs. They gave the dogs electric shocks and would not allow them to escape. Eventually the dogs learned there was no escape. In later experiments where escape was possible, the dogs did not even try. They had learned that they were helpless.
There was no escape from that small gray dorm room for Max. If he left, the college would not refund the hefty fee for room and board. The only way he could get that refund was if he became medically ill enough to need to leave. Max had learned that he was helpless.
The link between learned helplessness and depression is well established in the literature. In fact, that connection is so important that depression therapy almost always incorporates a method to combat it.
Max’s descent into depression was almost inevitable. Still, when I followed up with him later, time with his family had helped a lot. “I’m feeling more hopeful,” he told me with tears in his eyes. “I get to walk my dog again.”
Revenue vs student welfare
Bankruptcy due to loss of revenue is a very real concern for many colleges during the pandemic. And room and board from the dorms is a big part of that revenue. But the well-being and mental health of college students must always matter more than the bottom line.
American universities have long been understood to operate in loco parentis (in the place of parents) with regard to their students. While our understanding of what in loco parentis means has changed with regards to students rights, the idea that colleges have a duty to safeguard their welfare is still very much in place.
With that duty in mind, colleges must change harmful policies that make living in the dorms mandatory. The mental health of our college students requires them to be free to determine where they will live while they attend college online.