It’s been just over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to shutter its windows and ride out a once-in-a-century storm. Students say they feel the pressure from yet another semester in a pandemic, but that toll on their mental health and general wellness is compounded by the lack of a spring break.
Instead, the university’s faculty senate and administration approved a single Friday off in mid-April for a mental health day in lieu of a regular spring break in an effort to curb the potential spread of COVID-19 caused by mass travel.
Angel Layfield, sophomore in entrepreneurship and supply chain management, said the pandemic has been hard for her because she relies only on herself for emotional and financial support. Layfield aged out of the foster system and said FAFSA and K-State consider her an independent.
“I work 40 hours a week to financially sustain myself,” she said. “That’s part of the life of being an independent student. I am currently enrolled in 18 credit hours because of a dual major. I’m in some pretty intense course loads. And then, you know I have a personal life. … Life goes on outside of school and work, and it’s really easy to burn out when you’re sitting in front of a screen for more than 12 hours a day.”
Alex Wilson, senior in anthropology, said he only gets a few evenings a month to take a breath.
“It’s constant go, go, go,” Wilson said. “There is never a moment that I don’t have something on my plate. In the past, I typically — and I think a lot of students do this too — would use spring break as a bit of a catch-up.”
While Layfield said she believes it’s ethically responsible to keep students on campus to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread, one mental health day is not an adequate replacement.
“What I mean by that is that when K-State made this decision, they made it clearly on safety protocols,” Layfield said. “However, they weren’t being mindful of the general health of a student, which is more than just the pandemic.”
While it’s a liability to have students going out and traveling, she said, it is also a liability to not have a spring break.
Marco Saucedo, senior in American ethnic studies, said he considered the decision to remove the break “ignorant and volatile” to student health and wellness. Given the last year and chaos that has plagued the country, Saucedo said, there appears to be no consideration for the next generation.
“We’re just like, ‘Oh, let’s just keep moving, let’s just keep it going,’ without taking into account all the different things that could have changed people’s lives in the past year,” he said. “I think it’s just an outlandish concept for the university to replace a week with a single day. But from previous experience, I’m not surprised by their actions.”
Saucedo said he didn’t consider spring break as an opportunity for students to go out and travel.
“I considered it as something where students are going to literally take that walk that they probably haven’t taken in a couple of weeks, or actually, you know, replenish themselves — maybe do some other hobbies that they’re into,” he said.
Saucedo said the current situation is becoming too much for some students — having to work, attend classes, participate in extracurriculars, deal with their own family struggles and financial struggles. In a Twitter poll, 61 percent of 93 respondents said they felt stressed at this point in the semester.
“People are starting to, quote-unquote, lose it, like mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally,” Saucedo said.
Wilson said while college students are always stressed, this year differs from others because there is an added sense of hopelessness for some students.
“Knowing that there is no break that with each week that goes on, there’s going to be another week that follows, and then another week after that,” he said. “So obviously, we look forward to summer. But a number of students will take summer classes, or the pandemic is still going to be in effect in the summer.”
A student who wishes to remain anonymous said she’s suffering because she can’t see her mental health professional. Her psychotherapist is in Texas, but she’s unable to do telehealth because of state boundaries and licensing and she can’t travel home. She said she has tried five different mental health professionals while she’s been at K-State, including the program offered on campus.
“This is my final semester, I am applying for jobs after eight years of schooling, working on my master’s thesis, and I can’t see my therapist,” she said. “My mental health is deteriorating, and I’m afraid after graduation I may have to be medicated. All we are told is, ‘This is architecture, we always push hard, it’s a master’s program, and we are in a pandemic.’ Then we are thanked for ‘understanding.’ But I don’t understand, and I don’t think administration understands either.”
Vanessa McVay, therapist at Counseling Services, said it’s important to recognize the symptoms of burnout in order to recover from it. These can include physical symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, getting sick or headaches. Students might also be more worried or irritable, isolate from others or feel a lack of motivation.
“As far as things that could be helpful once you’re able to recognize it in yourself or, you know, somebody else is just kind of increasing your self-care,” she said. “Which I think a big part of that is connecting with your social network and staying connected with people in your academic social networks or your professors or advisors and stuff like using the support that the university has. And then, of course, counseling.”
McVay said Counseling Services is offering some workshops for students that might be feeling burned out. These workshops are called Reset and Thrive and will be offered every Friday beginning April 9.
“We offered them last semester in the middle of the semester exactly for this reason because we know that this is the kind of challenging time,” McVay said. “The topics are on self-compassion, motivation and resilience. And so we can see how those would be really beneficial for students that are maybe experiencing burnout right now.”
Students who are interested will need to call the front desk of Counseling Services, McVay said, as the workshops might not be drop-in.
As far as what needs to be done to help alleviate the stress, Saucedo said he wants to see action from the university. They need to take notice of the situation, he said said, and look at a reformation.
“I’m like ‘Look at these kids. They’re just falling apart, in every sense,’ And it’s just very saddening to see,” Saucedo said.
Layfield said she wants to call on K-State officials to evaluate the financial impact of the pandemic on students.
“So the Office of the Provost, President [Richard] Myers and K-State administration really, really need to take a look at their ethical rules and standards, and think about whether they’re putting the well-being of students and their faculty first, or if they are trying to make up for the loss of money and revenue that has vanished over the past year and a half, due to not having sports, or on-campus fees or whatever,” she said.
The stress is taking a toll on people, Saucedo said.
“You can just see it in people’s eyes when you walk through Aggieville or through campus,” he said. “Everybody just looks drained and exhausted and they’re just kind of like, ‘I just want to leave and go home right now.'”