The spring semester was supposed to be filled with exciting events like Centralhallapalooza. Then, COVID-19 struck. Overnight, state-wide stay-at-home orders, an endless number of event cancellations, toilet paper hoarding, and endless Zoom calls, all became commonplace.
However, as the pandemic enters its sixth month, another pandemic seems to be brewing: one of mental illness.
The isolation measures implemented to stop the spread of the virus have triggered huge spikes in mental distress indicators. In August, CNN reported that a recent study found 1 in 4 Americans between 18 and 24 had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days preceding the survey. Overall, Mental Health America reported an incredible 400% increase in depression and anxiety screenings between January and June of this year.
These troubling statistics aren’t surprising — humans were never intended to live in isolation. As Aristotle famously said, “man is by nature a social animal.” While services like Zoom have admirably attempted to virtually maintain our institutions, we must not ignore the importance of in-person interaction.
A study from the desktop analytics firm Enkata revealed that working from home is less efficient than in an office space. Moreover, “Zoom fatigue” is a real phenomenon. Moreover, Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, asserts that discerning facial expressions, vocal tone and pitch, and body language on a video call is draining. Despite incredible 21st century advancements that have lessened the feelings of isolation during the pandemic, technology’s greatest attempts to re-create human interaction ultimately fail. Its efforts are dwarfed by in-person interaction — not just in the corporate world, but also in our personal lives.
In my own experience, Zoom calls and classes quickly shifted from an interesting novelty to an impersonal, artificial ritual. Technology failed to re-create the human experience, lacking the intangible qualities of an in-person conversation that enriches the human experience.
Since I have returned to campus, I have noticed substantial differences between my virtual and in-person interactions. In retrospect, the endless texts, Zoom calls, and emails seem stale, overly predictable, and artificial. These interactions are constricted by the medium of technology, as well as external factors like internet connection, a predetermined length, and the purpose for the interaction.
While many human interactions on campus can be this way too, the experience of spontaneously visiting a friend’s dorm room or playing a game of frisbee cannot be captured in a text message or FaceTime call. While social distancing still limits physical contact like high-fives, and masks hide smiles, the act of physically praying, dining, playing, and studying with others on campus is far more authentic and personal than those interactions were in isolation. Even as an introvert, I have found in-person gatherings to be far more enjoyable than doing the same activities over Zoom.
If we only address COVID-19 and ignore the importance of preserving our in-person communities in the midst of social distancing, then we will have defeated a biological sickness but succumbed to the mental sickness that is devastating young people nationwide.
While our studies are of utmost importance and can dominate the majority of our Hillsdale experience, we must continue to commit ourselves to pursuing community.
I encourage my fellow students to seek out and build community even more so than ever. Join a local church. Pursue courses and activities where you can study and work with like-minded individuals. Set aside time to get to know your friends on a deeper level rather than simply asking a generic “how was your day?” While this year is different, human beings are the same, and our eagerness to come together for the noble causes of education, faith, and friendship ought to exceed our fear of the virus.
Many students I have spoken with worry that it will be difficult to build community this year. While the circumstances are certainly challenging, the important thing is that we have an opportunity to be more intentional in our relationships. Instead of generic conversations, going through the motions, or closing our doors (literally and symbolically), we should push ourselves to build deeper community within our dorms, clubs, and classes.
While we are still looking for a successful vaccine to end the COVID-19 pandemic, there is already a vaccine on campus against mental distress, and that is community.
After five months of physical isolation, it is time to embrace the in-person gatherings that are essential to both the Hillsdale and human experience. If the past five months have taught us anything, it’s that community matters, and we have a collective responsibility to participate in it.
Thomas Curro is a sophomore studying Politics.