Boost social growth while learning to live with COVID

It’s shocking considering what we’ve lost in the last two years. More than a million people in our country have died from COVID. In the psychiatric university hospital where I work, I have seen young adults who have lost grandparents, aunts and uncles. As we mourn this terrible loss of life, there is another loss we have all suffered that has had a profound impact on young adults: social connection.

Zoom has kept many of us together during the pandemic, but it’s not the same as gathering friends in a room. Before the pandemic, screen time was increasing and face-to-face contact among college students was declining. The pandemic has accelerated this social distancing.

With the availability of vaccines, it is much safer for students to gather than in the past, and in the spring of 2022, face-to-face classes at colleges nationwide increased. In my opinion, taking at least a few face-to-face classes each semester is crucial, as we know social connection improves physical and emotional health. While I cannot say there is a causal effect, there has been an increased rate of depression and anxiety over the years of COVID isolation.

If you have a child who is starting college or returning to college in the fall, they could be lagging behind socially. 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 group and are ready to make new friends, but aren’t sure how. They come to college with less social experience than their predecessors.

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

  1. class connections: Start casual conversations in your classes. Share a thought about a course or ask for clarification. See if you can find a study partner or someone who will meet you later at the library.
  2. association connections: Join at least two clubs. It could be an in-house sport, a volunteer organization, a religious organization, an anime club, a band, a dance troupe, or Greek life. Visit the clubs regularly. You’ll make friends for college and beyond.
  3. Take it slow: With all the social isolation of the past two years, people are eager to get out and meet others. However, I think all people feel a bit awkward in their social interactions. Be natural and don’t overdo it. Make sure there is give and take. Ask others about themselves and share information about yourself without sharing too much at once.
  4. process rejection: It’s hard to deal with rejection when you’re young. Some of us are more sensitive than others and we may feel bad if we try to start a conversation and get stuck. You never know why someone doesn’t answer. You may think there is something wrong with you, but maybe someone is just having a bad day. Don’t read minds, ie don’t think you know what someone else is thinking. Let it go and get on with your day.
  5. Dealing with unhealthy behavior: I’ve seen some young adults engage in unhealthy relationships and overlook risky behaviors because they were so eager to have a boyfriend. Friends don’t yell at each other, scold each other, hit each other, borrow and pay back money, or party late at night when you’re trying to sleep. If you’re in a relationship that’s constantly causing you pain or making you feel bad, it’s time to get out. You are young and you can make new friends.
  6. set limits: Every friendship will hit bumps. You might live with your best friend from high school, but he doesn’t think he has to wash the dishes until they’re piled high in the sink and there are no dishes left. Talk to your friend instead of building grudges. Hang a schedule on the fridge. And if they don’t answer, find another roommate for the next year. That could save the friendship.

I am writing this post with the idea that colleges will continue to offer in-person courses and clubs. I hope that’s the case. I think a lot of opportunities to meet outdoors with fans in warmer climates and with heaters in colder climates have been missed during the pandemic. With high COVID transmission rates, outdoor or even online options could be used in the future. College students with certain medical conditions should consult with their healthcare providers about appropriate safety precautions and can still benefit from online classes. Although three out of four COVID deaths have occurred in people over the age of 65, there are potential risks for all ages with any infectious disease

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

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

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