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A view of Central Hall on Hillsdale’s campus. Thomas Curro | Col­legian

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.