The Weight of the World

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[The following blog contains discussion of suicide.]

Only 29% of hospitalised COVID-19 patients fully well one year on: Study (channelnewsasia.com)
It’s not over: COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in US (sfgate.com)
Climate anxiety and high school: How young people are coping (ABC News on MSN)

One of the things I’m testing out with my College Writing students this semester is a term-long exercise where students are expected to keep up semi-regular email correspondence with me. In addition to helping students learn the formal and social conventions of emailing instructors — I worry that many of my colleagues at other institutions are still struggling to grasp that email is an antiquated technology to today’s first-year college students, who have been text messaging their friends on smartphones since they can remember — it also provides another way to keep the channels of communication open with students; those one-on-one interactions, especially in the first years of college, are crucial when it comes to acclimating students to the unique environments of higher education. Especially with online classes, this exercise is providing a good opportunity to make up for the kind of conversations that might normally happen before or after class time in an in-person learning environment, and it appears to be doing far more good than harm this semester for most of my students.

As those students have come onto Zoom to speak with me one-on-one during my virtual office hours this semester, though, it’s become clear that this year’s incoming college students are facing far more challenges than larger society is recognizing. By the time we hit midterms about a month ago, I’m fairly sure that I’d had more students cry while talking with me than I’d had in any other semester of my sixteen years of teaching, and that number keeps ticking up. With finals now just three weeks away, I fear that things will only continue to get worse for my students, and while I keep trying to help them in whatever ways I can, there’s only so much I can do. The emotional work of teaching has always been one of my strongest suits, but my capacity to handle that work is not limitless.

More importantly, my students also have a limited capacity for emotional work, and far too many of them were already pushed beyond their limits before this semester even started. With the booming numbers of older people dealing with long-term consequences of having contracted COVID-19, and hospitals needing to keep beds open in the event that pandemic numbers spike again (which now looks likely as new variants of Omicron start to sweep the continent), the amount of work that young adults are being expected to do to help take care of older family members — a problem that was already reaching huge proportions before the COVID-19 pandemic — is going off the charts. The transitions that young people make in those years around the end of high school are difficult enough even under the best of circumstances, far more so for those who go on to college and have to deal with its rigors, so to have all this additional work foisted on them now, on top of their personal pandemic-related burdens that they’ve had to deal with every day for over two years now, is unfathomable.

To be clear, I am not saying that expecting younger people to take care of older relatives is necessarily a bad thing; it may very well be the best of all the very bad options we’re faced with as a society right now. What I am saying is that putting this burden on these young people, and assuming that they’ll just “learn to live with it” and be okay, is beyond foolish. The phrase “mental health crisis” was being bandied about a lot even before the pandemic, to the point where it had mostly lost the impact that it should have, but the more I talk with my students, and the more I read about the experiences of other young people their age as they’ve fought to survive these past couple of years, the clearer it’s become that the mental health issues that our larger society has mostly ignored for decades have now gotten exponentially worse, and they’re not going to get better any time soon.

I wrote most of those words on Sunday, and then I woke up today to news that a star student-athlete on our Madison campus had taken her own life because of the problems she was having dealing with the demands of college life. In some ways, I feel kind of uncomfortable concluding this blog now because of the timing, but the longer we go without even recognizing what’s happening to the young adults of the early pandemic era here, much less addressing it, the more of these stories we’ll all have to deal with, and even this one story is one story too many. Between the pandemic and economic anxiety and well-founded concerns about things like the basic habitability of this planet decades from now, this generation of young adults are being asked to handle far too much, and our larger society seems determined to make sure that only the most privileged of them even begin to develop the skills they’ll need to get through the challenges ahead. Each one of us can only do so much individually, and if we can’t get our collective act together to make things better for this next generation, then we are dooming them to far, far worse times to come.

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