People need each other, and we always have. For millennia, philosophers have known “man [to be] by nature a social animal,” and in the last few centuries, modern medicine has systematized this understanding. That mental health has plummeted nationwide in the last nine months, then, should hardly come as a surprise. All of us are suffering, but those under stay-at-home orders this year are significantly more likely to report poor mental health than those who were not. To spend time with friends, let alone make new ones, is dangerous in ways inconceivable a year ago, and that peril has taken its toll. For us as college students, the barriers to fulfilling our needs for socialization are even higher, but overcoming them safely isn’t merely possible — it’s necessary.
As college students, social isolation is especially severe for us. Even before the pandemic struck, universities were breeding grounds for poor mental health. According to one nationwide study, 41% of nearly 800,000 U.S. undergraduates suffered from moderate to severe depression in 2018. Their graduate counterparts’ problems were even worse: they experienced anxiety and depression at rates over six times higher than the general population, and almost two-thirds of those identifying as transgender and gender nonconforming suffered from stifling mental health. And given the overwhelming stresses of postsecondary education, we are acutely vulnerable to the pandemic’s innumerable mental pressures. For your own sake, take ownership of your mental health — it can be as simple as making a new friend.
As an extremely introverted person, I understand that meeting new people is much easier said than done. I spent my first three days at Emory in near-total solitude. When I finally ventured out of my room to make friends, my stress levels were higher than during any organic chemistry test that semester. But everyone, even the hermits among us, needs some degree of social interaction, and data backs that up.
Those of us who lack regular social interaction suffer health risks similar to those brought on by smoking 15 cigarettes per day or chronic alcohol abuse. Loneliness is twice as deleterious to both physical and mental health as obesity. To say isolation kills is not an overstatement. Whether you live on campus, at home or elsewhere, you have a duty to safeguard your own health by maintaining existing connections and forging new ones however possible. If you retreat into yourself, you will become increasingly miserable and withdraw further still. Don’t let it happen. Your life is worth more than that.
Yet in mitigating the risks that COVID-19 poses to our mental health, many of us invite untenable danger from the virus itself. As the Wheel’s Editorial Board noted just two weeks ago, meeting new people is more perilous than ever. Particularly on college campuses, where students live in close quarters and interact with dozens of their peers every day, the temptation to socialize unsafely can be irresistible. Emory is no exception; Residence Life staff and campus proctors report massive gatherings of students without masks in residence halls, public spaces and even Lullwater Preserve. By no means does engaging with other human beings require such destructive carelessness.
Instead of going to an illicit party in the middle of a park, reach out to a few people from class about meeting for lunch on the Quad. Rather than packing into a tiny room in Dobbs Hall on a Thursday night, pick up a mask and go for a socially distanced walk with a friend. And of course, you always have the option to connect with friends and family virtually. Play Scrabble, watch a movie together via Netflix Party or laugh over a Cards Against Humanity game. While restricting all social interaction to the virtual sphere is unrealistic and no real substitute for face-to-face conversation, we owe it to ourselves and others to balance our ache for in-person interaction with the public’s well-being to whatever extent we can. No one should have to choose between their physical and mental health, and given the communications technology available to us, you don’t have to.
Don’t merely cold email people in your classes or in your residence hall; there are countless other ways to engage with the Emory community. The many student organizations listed on OrgSync are a great place to start, and participating actively in discussion can be valuable as well. Emory Recreation and Wellness even hosts virtual yoga classes — you could meet new people and ease your stress to boot.
Socializing from a safe distance may be difficult. However, if you currently live on campus, even the limited social interaction available to you now is vastly preferable to the crushing loneliness you may have endured if Emory hadn’t reopened residence halls this semester. Making friends unsafely risks both sending yourself and your new friends into quarantine. Why take that chance?
No one fulfills their social needs in the same way. As a first-year, I made a few very close friends, joined several clubs and participated in class, and that was enough for me. But I know that I would have found making even those connections prohibitively difficult if I had arrived at Emory in the middle of a pandemic; for that reason, I hesitate to criticize too harshly those first-years who practice social distancing imperfectly. For the sake of your physical health and my own, though, I implore you to do the best you can. The stakes are too high for you to justify anything less. So take care of yourself and make friends, but don’t put the rest of us at risk in the process.
Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.