April 4, 2020

GUEST ROOM | As Classes Resume, Consider our Mental Health

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It’s 9 a.m. I’ve already slept eight hours, but I can’t get out of bed. I hit snooze until 10:30 a.m. By 11 a.m., I’m making myself coffee, listening to my parents on conference calls in different rooms. I pet my dogs and bother my little sister. At 12 p.m., I’m surprised it’s already noon. This upsets me, so I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling until my thoughts tire me out. I scroll. At 1 p.m., I realize I want to do work. I open my computer. I have two untouched five page papers due in a week. I don’t remember the material from either class. I look over some notes, and get tired after five minutes. I fall back onto the floor. I think about my friends in N.Y.C., and how scared they are. The N.Y.C. death toll has surpassed that of 9/11. It’s 3 p.m. I make lunch, hang out with my dogs and bother my sister. I edit and publish a couple of articles for The Sun’s arts section. I listen to music, a different genre every day. It’s 5 p.m.; the light outside is nice. I go for a walk, and the spring air almost soothes me. I get back home. I feel how tired I am of my family; I can’t process the fact that I’ve spent three weeks home doing nothing. I write about it in my journal, tight pain in my chest. I send a text to my friends telling them I miss them. I check my three email accounts over and over again. It’s 7 p.m. We finally sit down to dinner. Our conversation covers unemployment statistics and predictions that the virus could rage another year — my chest seizes up. My mom tells me my high school teacher is sick. I should call my grandparents. I spend the rest of the night thinking.

Luckily, no one in my family is ill. My parents’ jobs are under a lot of stress, but they have jobs. I am fed, I have enough toilet paper (for now) and have no issues using Zoom. I am the student that Cornell might imagine to opt for grades over the S/U option, with no life-changing demands thrust upon me. But I still don’t know which I will choose.

You’re just being lazy, one might say. You need to pick yourself up off of the floor and write your papers. Be grateful and do your homework. Maybe.

But how can I think about the romanticization of peasantry in 19th century art when so many are suffering? The communities around me in N.Y. and N.J. are being decimated by the virus. My area and the rest of the world are grieving. Everyone is either suffering a loss or knows someone who is suffering a loss, is combating the virus or knows someone combatting the virus. My cousin is an emergency room doctor in lower Manhattan. My sister borrowed our high school’s 3D printer to print plastic pieces of ventilator equipment because of the shortages. My malaria-expert-uncle Dr. Chris Plowe ’82 M.D. ’86 has informed online discourse about potential medicine to stamp out the virus. I’m trying to find ways to keep my peers on The Sun distracted. My friends are participating in Sibling Bread Collective (Instagram: @siblingbreadco), a cross-city bread-selling project which will donate funds to COVID-19 relief.

Cornell students are almost always, only thinking about the virus.

Students have lost the environment in which we have been shaping our identities. Our university is a safe place of diverse opportunity, and allows the self-exploration that facilitates our transition to adulthood. The degree to which students might feel uncomfortable in their pandemic shelters, for a wide variety of reasons, should not be overlooked.

I am privileged to be in my parents’ home, yet I’m still unhappy. Who am I when I’m home but a child who eats, sleeps and complains? And how do students feel with family they cannot connect with, or worse? It’s hard to connect with friends online; screens cannot simulate eye contact. Loneliness is a scourge upon mental health.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to get my act together on Monday. I don’t know if I’ll be proud of the work I produce while my family and networks are under so much pressure. The world feels different — society has paused — so I’m not sure students should be expected to perform the way we would have back in Ithaca.

If I opt for S/U, I feel like I’d be seen as weak — I’d have no explanation other than a possibly false self-diagnosis of depression. Is my mental state really dire enough to opt for S/U — is it out of the range of possibilities that grad schools might ask the reason behind choosing S/U? If I choose to be graded, I’m worried I won’t be able to consistently produce high-quality work. I can’t focus, and I know I’m not alone. Many of my friends and colleagues have also expressed their lack of motivation and sadness. I grapple with proposing solutions to this strange and solemn situation: Perhaps projects will replace some exams, though that change seems minuscule when school feels futile.

I hope this article will provide insight into students’ lives as we enter a new routine of attending Zoom lectures and discussions. My inability to focus despite my relative wellbeing speaks volumes; many students are bearing far greater burdens than I am. I hope that students are given space to heal within the structure of classes — even those students who opt for grades.

Emma Plowe is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She currently serves as Arts Editor on The Sun’s board. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.