Looking Into the Online Void: Virtual Classes Take Toll on Mental Health

By Raha Riazati | Published 02/04/2021

Sometime in the midst of March, amid warming weather and meticulously planned spring breaks, a death toll sounded for in-person education. Across the country, K-12 and college students were sent home for what was initially intended to be a temporary period, but which has now stretched into 9 months of isolation. The current Caltech student body is no exception. The freshman class, already stripped of the chance to experience traditional high school events like prom and graduation, has now also found a variety of other hallmark frosh experiences indefinitely put on hold or altogether cancelled. Meanwhile, upperclassmen have been forced to shoulder the immense Caltech workload remotely for almost three terms. Removed from the social support network campus provides, many students have found themselves struggling to stay afloat, both academically and mentally.

The negative effects of long periods of quarantining on mental well-being has a very real basis. According to Dr. Betty Pfefferbaum and Dr. Carol S. North of the New England Journal of Medicine, extended home-confinement directives have been linked to greater stress, depression, insomnia, and substance abuse. These in turn may lead to the development of more serious anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and clinical depression. Fears about the virus, combined with concerns about economic security, uncertainty over future prospects, and the general sense of boredom and loneliness that comes with staying at home, readily catalyze mental health decline.

Additionally, as Caltech’s own Dr. Lee H. Coleman, Clinical Director of Counseling Services, describes, “Everyone needs relationships, and so much of our growth and learning takes place best within the context of close, supportive relationships”, many of which are now withering away due to stay-at-home orders. Physically separated from the friends who we so often lean on for support, we are forced to interact with them remotely via social media, video chatting, or other forms of online communication.

Yet many students report finding Zoom calls and FaceTimes much more draining than face-to-face conversation, most likely because of the increased difficulty in reading social cues. The feeling of being physically close to another person during a meal or social event seems impossible to replicate virtually.
Quarantine also means many of the traditional sources of entertainment are no longer available. Movie theaters, restaurants, shopping malls, and theme parks, all havens for socializing and spending time with others, have been either closed or are under extensive restrictions. Thus, students looking for an escape often turn to social media sites like Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter or streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus. Though some seem to have discovered new hobbies over quarantine, such as baking, drawing, or knitting, the most common answer to “What did you do over the weekend?” remains “I just watched Netflix”. The negative mental health effects of social media have been studied extensively, and much of these findings can be applied to binging content in the isolation of one’s room as well. Spending extensive amounts of time cooped up in a room by oneself readily foments the frustration and boredom characteristic of poor mental health.

Perhaps the most marked change in general mental well-being has been in the academic realm: students find themselves unmotivated, unfocused, and lacking work ethic. One student reported feeling constantly “drained” while another said their “work ethic and mental health declined significantly”. Some upperclassmen explained how their drop in motivation and thus performance during spring term was so large that they decided to take a leave of absence. They are not alone: many prefrosh chose to defer their enrollment for fear of a less-than-ideal experience in their first year of college. One student perfectly summarized the rapid reduction in self-discipline and focus: “Being at Caltech physically…helps me be there mentally as well”. The change in environment that comes with attending physical classes is a vital element of finding focus; barriers between work and play blur at home, leading to idleness and a general lack of productivity. This, compounded with the seeming endlessness of the pandemic, may cause students to slip into the familiar, nihilistic mindset of “nothing matters so why should I try anyway”. As Dr. Grace Ho, Caltech’s occupational therapist, explains, being separated from the heavy academic atmosphere of campus may “make [students] lose sight of why what [they] do is important to [them]. There’s a huge lack of positive reinforcement - even the little things like hearing people talk about science over lunch” no longer exist, leaving minds stagnant and unmotivated.

Such hopelessness isn’t helped by the increased difficulty of the already challenging Caltech curriculum in a remote setting. One student reports that in-person education offers an “easier access to professors, teacher assistants, and upperclassmen for homework help” than online classes can ever provide. For a tight-knit community like Caltech, help from upperclassmen is especially vital in completing sets and understanding hard material. International students in particular have been disadvantaged with the switch to remote learning. Often unable to attend lectures and recitations without making radical changes to their sleep schedule, they must rely on busy classmates or notes and recordings to stay up to date with course material. Making the intense Caltech workload somehow more difficult is a Herculean task, but the COVID-19 pandemic has managed to do just that in a matter of months.

Normally, ends of articles like this one would end with a hopeful look towards the future, but unfortunately, much about the future remains up in the air. It is unclear when students will be allowed to return to campus or how the distribution of the new vaccine will pan out. The Institute plans to announce plans for Spring Term on February 15th. Yet, we can take heart in the fact that we are slowly learning how to better weather quarantine. Professors and teaching assistants are innovating new ways each term to connect with students virtually, while students are taking initiative in setting up Discord chats to find collaboration partners.

Perhaps most strikingly, the Interhouse Committee and Office of Residential Experience worked hard to adapt Rotation, an iconic Caltech experience, to the current situation; a variety of online programming brought freshmen and upperclassmen together to provide some much-needed social interaction and community. The launch of such an ambitious project in a virtual environment is definitely a positive sign for Caltech’s attempts to replicate aspects of the in-person experience in a virtual setting.
In the meantime, however, there are a wealth of support resources to take advantage of. Caltech’s Counseling and Occupational Therapy Services are continuing to offer workshops every week on topics ranging from tackling procrastination to managing stress, and students can speak with any of the counselors or occupational therapists on staff by calling (626) 395-8331. Dr. Coleman urges the student body to remember that the end of the pandemic draws closer every day and that they can reach out to support services whenever they need to for any reason.

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