20% of college students are more depressed.
11% are more anxious.
16% are more lonely.
COVID-19 has caused serious emotional challenges for young people. In fact, according to Wisdo, a peer-to-peer counseling community, “pandemic anxiety is almost three times more worrying to this age group than any other stress-creating experiences pre COVID-19.”
Three-time bestselling New York Times author Dan Ariely, who wrote Predictably Irrational and is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, uses the app and is an advisor to the company. He says the virus is a huge issue, and the economic impact of shutdowns is massive.
But most important is the psychological impact.
“There’s lots of things happening in this Corona crisis, but one of them is the unpredictability of the world, and the reality that when things are unpredictable they’re very hard to deal with,” Ariely told me on the TechFirst podcast. “And who has the most amount of unpredictability? Young people … they basically have no control over their environment.”
When the world is unpredictable and bad things happen, learned helplessness sets in, Ariely says.
Stress builds as well: health and medical stress, financial stress, even stress from being in close proximity for a long time with the same people during shutdown. These are all results of schools shutting down, jobs being lost, and college students’ uncertainty of when and how they will be able to resume classes and move towards careers.
Wisdo is conducting what it calls “the world’s first comprehensive study of mental health during the pandemic.” The study will encompass all users of the app in the U.S. and the UK and will last through the entire 2020 year.
The initial findings are not good.
Depression, anxiety, and stress are leading to sleeping problems, trouble expressing thoughts and feelings in conversation, and challenges with enjoying life. And there’s been a huge increase in the number of students reporting excessive worrying.
Ariely isn’t just speaking theoretically or academically about how a lack of control of your circumstances impacts your wellness and mental health. He’s experienced what he’s talking about — and it’s why he wears half a beard.
“I was burned 70%, I was in hospital for about three years,” he told me. “The lack of knowledge of what’s going to happen and not being able to control my own destiny in any way was incredibly tough … it was incredibly psychologically challenging.”
So what can students — or adults who have lost a job — do to regain a sense of control and some level of mental health?
Ariely says there are some simple steps anyone can take.
“We’re not going to get a lot of control back,” Ariely says. “The question is, can we get some of it back? And so in hospital, one way to give people control is what’s called “patient controlled analgesia” when you basically have a button and you decide when to press and that gives you medication on your time.”
The key, Ariely says, is to find something like that in our lives. Something that provides some level of control, and shows quick results. Examples that most of us are seeing on social media probably include baking bread — especially sourdough — or hobbies like knitting or art. Retail therapy is another, Ariely says, but he doesn’t recommend it. (”Gets expensive,” he says.)
Essentially, anything that shows you quick improvement is best.
“Corona time is giving us an opportunity to work on those things, and this is a sense of control,” Ariely says. “Why? Because it’s a process that allows you to see progress. If you start to meditate, it gives you progress. Another, a good thing to do is to do push ups. Why? You could see the increase, right? First day it’s maybe three and then you can move at some to four, but what you want is things that you can actually see the improvement.”
And that sourdough we’re seeing on social media?
It’s the modern-day Tamagotchi, says Ariely. Keeping something alive — even some yeast — is an exercise in creativity and control that can help us feel better in general.