Health and Science

Stop 'demonizing' college students for coronavirus spread, mental health experts urge

Key Points
  • College students are getting a bad rap for partying and spreading Covid-19. 
  • But CNBC spoke with college students across the country who say they take the virus seriously. 
  • Mental health experts say it's time to show empathy to students, rather than to scapegoat them. 
Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 18, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Melissa Sue Gerrits | Getty Images

Life on college campuses in 2020 bears little resemblance to the experience most students hoped for. 

Many have remained at home to attend classes virtually. Others are back on campus to take a mix of in-person and online classes. Some were required to quarantine for several weeks once they arrived back on campus. Most are taking precautions about how they socialize with other students. 

But headlines tell a different story. Endless media coverage has pointed to wild partying both on and off campus in defiance of social distancing guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. And in response, many college administrators have publicly shared that they've taken harsh measures to crack down on this kind of behavior by suspending students or evicting those who held gatherings in student housing.

"When you look at public sentiment, I feel very strongly that college students get a bad rap for not caring about anyone and really only caring about themselves," said Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "There's this belief that all they want to do is go out and drink and be selfish and spread Covid-19," she said. 

'Surviving is different than living'

CNBC spoke to college students across the country who described this kind of behavior as the exception — not the norm. Instead, they say, many students are taking Covid-19 seriously and are forgoing opportunities to make friends through college sports or large gatherings. 

"When I first arrived on campus, I quarantined for two weeks indoors," said Kyra Kushner, a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. "I had no physical touch, or really many friends yet, so I reached out to my building's group chat and suggested we have a virtual game night."

Moreover, many students say they are seeing their peers take the precautions seriously for the most part. 

"At my college, I would say that social distancing and masks are adhered to at least 90% of the time," said Caleb Bitting, a student who recently returned to Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

These stories are a far cry from the prevailing narrative that colleges are struggling to police the behavior of young people.

In Bitting's view, that may be true for some campuses. But he said that Colby is communicating regularly with students about lower-risk ways to socialize, such as outdoor walks. In August, the college reported that just three students and two staff-members tested positive for the virus after the school tested more than 6,000 people. In response, the school asked those three students to self-quarantine. 

Meanwhile, at the University of Alabama, where Ainsley Platt is a student, more than 2,000 students, faculty and other employees have tested positive for the virus.

Platt, who is in a sorority, said she and her sisters in the Greek community have been taking the virus seriously — and at times, it feels that they are more concerned about Covid-19 than the school itself. "I don't see a lot of enforcement," she said. "I see students walking around campus all the time without masks on." 

Platt said she'd feel uncomfortable asking other students to take precautions. But she's hoping that she won't have to return home midway through the semester because her parents have health risks and she doesn't want to endanger them. At home, over the summer, she spent a lot of her time indoors. "Surviving is different than living," she said. 

Mental health professionals say it isn't doing much good to simply blame students for outbreaks. Many of them are taking the virus seriously, but there are inevitable challenges that will arise from bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of young people back to campus. As of late, campuses are driving a large proportion of the current Covid-19 outbreaks. Earlier this week, USA Today published an analysis showing that college communities represent 19 of the the nation's 25 hottest outbreaks.

Still, they say, colleges should communicate with students about how to stay safe while helping them get to know each other and form connections. They should also be clear about what the public health guidelines are, so that students shouldn't have to feel they need to call each other out. 

Moreover, as Gold pointed out, many of the young adults that have been called out as the primary drivers for spreading Covid-19 are disproportionately the frontline and essential workers in many industries. Young people are more likely to work in retail or in restaurants, she said, and some of them take shifts where they can to help them pay their pricey college tuition.

"I think most students are really trying to be safe," said Arden Wolf, who attends Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The exception might be the freshman, who are more inclined to host parties because they don't have many friends on campus, said Wolf. But she said her college has been quick to respond to any reports. 

One thing that her school could be doing better, she said, is sending emails about the coronavirus that are more transparent and easy to read. She also suggested that schools could provide more information on safe socializing as many are suffering from "Zoom fatigue."

More empathy, less blame

In Wolf's view, there's a misconception that students, like herself, are indifferent about catching the coronavirus. Some students are themselves at risk, and may have pre-existing conditions like diabetes and asthma. Others are nervous about passing on the virus to their family members, if they found themselves suddenly returning home after an outbreak.

"I don't want to catch the virus or give it to other people living with me," she said. 

Mental health experts agree that college students need more empathy and less blame. Marcia Morris, a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, said that "students are struggling."

She can't think of any other time that life on campus was so challenging with the exception of the global recession in 2008, when a lot of families in Florida lost their homes. Morris has been working with college students since the early 90s. 

"Face-to-face socializing is critical for mental health and wellbeing," she said.

"So what needs to happen is that campus leaders should work with the student organizations to educate students and provide safe ways for them to have social contact, whether that's a socially distanced movie night, a walk with a friend, or a virtual event."

Morris said that students should not be "demonized" even if they break the rules, because behavior change is unlikely to occur through such punitive methods. 

"I feel for the students, and I do see that most are trying to be careful," she said. "These young people are suffering because they are trying to launch their lives and find out who they really are, but it's a trying time to do that."

Trump pushes for colleges and universities to keep campuses open despite coronavirus cases
Trump pushes for colleges and universities to keep campuses open despite coronavirus cases