In a rapid response to COVID-19, universities moved classes online and brought campus life to a sudden halt for thousands of final-year undergraduates. The fallout from this has the potential to exacerbate the existential despair that many young people may be experiencing, or turn this into a traumatic loss.
Emerging adulthood has been defined as “a critical developmental stage.” Various pressures and challenges can adversely impact the emotional health of emerging adults. When combined with the transition into an uncertain future, existential despair can result.
In my work as a clinician and scholar, I am concerned with how various states of emotional distress have been regarded by psychiatry and the larger field of mental health as abnormal and in need of intervention and medical treatment — in other words, how normal feelings have been medicalized.
Existential despair is common. It can be about larger life tensions or thoughts about our place in the world. For some, it’s about ongoing questioning of the meaning of life.
For others, existential despair happens suddenly or is triggered by a significant event. Depressed or anxious thoughts and feelings about ourselves and our future are common. Existential despair can be destabilizing or an opportunity for change.
Recovery after traumatic loss
COVID-19 brought a sudden end to university life for final-year students, taking with it most events that temper the sadness of saying good-bye. The potential for this abrupt ending to become a traumatic loss is real.
For about four years, university has been their home, community and source of identity. Some will be at greater risk of fallout than others. Those who were already struggling with the transition and those with histories of trauma will be at greater risk of experiencing this as traumatic loss.
Traumatic losses include significant deaths and losses that are badly timed or happen without warning. They can disrupt efforts to make meaning. Recovery after traumatic loss can be a slow, back-and-forth process.
Effects of childhood trauma
Many students come to university carrying the effects of childhood trauma. Prevalence rates of childhood trauma vary from more than one-third to more than half of those under 18. Many will have had more than one adverse childhood experience.
University life lets some students step aside from some of the emotional burdens of past traumas. University can provide an escape by providing familiarity and community, and making students feel less alone. Yet as Allan Horwitz, professor of sociology, and Jerome Wakefield, professor of social work, say in their book All We Have To Fear, “we are clearly not designed to leave behind traumatic memories forever.”
When the relative comfort of campus life is suddenly gone, some might feel catapulted back into the reality of their past trauma and their own aloneness. This reality might feel too big to bear. This sudden end to university can rip into the emotional defenses that have allowed some to feel less burdened by their histories.
Anguish isn’t a disorder
While undoubtedly some students may need professional help, both professional helpers (like counsellors) and non-professional helpers, such as friends, family members or faith leaders will need to resist the temptation to address all students’ anguish foremost or exclusively as psychological disorders that need fixing.
They will instead need to ask some big questions like: “What has been triggered by this sudden loss? What have they been carrying that they can no longer hold?”
The effects of trauma tend to stack up. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is important to watch for with this graduating class. The emotional loads are already too heavy for many.
Some are doing OK while others may be breaking down in the sense of feeling a loss of control and profound fear over powerful emotions.
A large proportion of students bring their trauma histories with them when they start school. An important part of offering support to those who are experiencing this sudden end as a traumatic loss is asking them: “What else are you struggling with?”
How we respond will matter … a lot!
How we respond to the needs of the class of 2020 will matter. Those who are struggling to function may need help. Psychotherapy will be an important option. Parents, you might feel your own emotional pains as you watch your daughter or son struggle with theirs. Don’t let your big feelings get in the way of them being present with theirs.
Considerations for struggling students
This will be a huge loss, but it doesn’t need to be defining.
Name it, don’t deny it, don’t try to pretend it away.
Talk about it openly and honestly.
Be present with big feelings.
Grieving will be necessary. There’s no right amount of time or way to grieve. These will vary.
Be honest about the reality and hopeful about the future.
Look at what can be done.
Stay connected through online communities.
Find out what your school has planned for after the COVID-19 crisis.
Find new ways to create meaning, purpose and belonging.
Great ‘existential crossroads’ books
There are lots of great books available that examine navigating and surviving loss, trauma and despair. Here are some I recommend:
Man’s Search for Meaning is a stunning and harrowing account of personal experiences by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl that documents his “logotherapy” approach as a way of engaging the search for meaning.
Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart is a Buddhist perspective on wholeness by psychiatrist Mark Epstein.
Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative by psychologist Eric Maisel offers insight based on his years working with smart or high-achieving people who have faced devastation.
Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience by author and journalist Laurence Gonzales reports on why some fare better than others in surviving perilous or traumatic situations.
The Soul in Anguish, by professor of depth psychology and Jungian analyst Lionel Corbett, examines how suffering can be helpful or harmful in the personality’s development.
Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, is a collection of Mother Teresa’s correspondence that shocked many with accounts of an “existentialist drama” and an “emptiness so great.”
The Alchemist is a popular allegorical novel by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho about the importance of taking small positive actions.