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Jumpstarting Social Growth While Learning to Live With COVID

It is shocking to consider what we have lost in the last two years. More than a million people in our country have died from COVID. In the college psychiatry clinic where I work, I’ve seen young adults who have lost grandparents, aunts, and uncles. While we mourn this terrible loss of life, there is another loss suffered by all of us that greatly impacted young adults: social connection.

Zoom kept many of us together during the pandemic, but it is not the same as friends gathering in a room. Prior to the pandemic, screen time was on the rise and in-person contact was declining among college students. The pandemic accelerated this social disconnection.

With the availability of vaccines, it is far safer for students to gather than in the past, and college in-person classes increased nationwide in the spring of 2022. In my mind, taking at least a few in-person courses each semester is critical , as we know social connection improves physical and emotional health. Although I cannot say there is a causal effect, there has been an increased rate of depression and anxiety during the years of COVID isolation.

If you have a child who is starting college or returning to college in the fall, they could be behind in their social development. In fact, a survey of parents of K-12 students reveals concerns about their children’s social health and social isolation during the pandemic. They may have had a few close friends in their pod and are ready to make new friends, but they’re not sure how. They enter college with less social experience than their predecessors.

Here is some advice for students who want to jumpstart their social growth during their college years:

  1. Class connections: Strike up casual conversations in your courses. Share a thought about a class or ask for clarification. See if you can find a study partner or someone who will meet you in the library later.
  2. club connections: Join at least two clubs. It could be an intramural sport, a volunteer organization, a religious organization, an anime club, a band, a dance troop, or Greek life. Attend the clubs regularly. You will make friends for college and beyond.
  3. taking it slow: With all the social isolation of the last two years, people are eager to get out and meet others. However, I think all people are feeling a bit awkward in their social interactions. Be natural and don’t come on too strong. Make sure there is give and take. Ask people about themselves and share information about yourself without sharing too much at once.
  4. Handling rejection: It is hard to handle rejection when you are young. Some of us are more sensitive than others and we might feel bad about ourselves if we try to strike up a conversation and hit a dead end. You never know why someone does not respond. You might think there is something wrong with you, but someone might just be having a bad day. Don’t mindread, ie, think that you know what someone else is thinking. Let it go and move on with your day.
  5. Handling unhealthy behaviors: I’ve seen some young adults get involved in unhealthy relationships, overlooking concerning behaviors as they are so eager to have a friend. Friends do not yell at each other, berate each other, hit each other, borrow money and not repay it, or have parties late at night when you are trying to sleep. If you are in a relationship that constantly causes you suffering or makes you feel bad about yourself, it is time to get out. You are young and can make new friends.
  6. Setting boundaries: Every friendship will hit bumps in the road. You may be living with your best friend from high school, but they do not think they need to wash the dishes until they are piled high in the sink and there are no dishes left to use. Talk with your friend rather than let resentment build up. Put a schedule up on the refrigerator. And if they do not respond, find a different roommate for the next year. That might save the friendship.

I’m writing this post with the idea that colleges will continue to offer in-person classes and clubs. I hope that is the case. I think there were many missed opportunities during the pandemic to meet outdoors with fans in warmer climates and with heaters in colder climates. Outdoor or even online options could be used in the future if there are high rates of COVID transmission. College students with certain medical conditions should consult with their healthcare providers on appropriate safety measures, and may still benefit from online classes. Although three out of four COVID deaths occurred in people over age 65, there are potential risks for all age groups with any infectious disease

We are all trying to figure out how to live with COVID, which is still present but causing fewer hospitalizations and deaths. If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us the power and importance of social connection.

©2022 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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