Looking Into the Future: Bridging the Psychological Divide in America After the Pandemic
Anjali Iyer, Denmark High School, Alpharetta, Georgia, USA
Going back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic has been, quite simply, strange. Of course, being able to return to in-person school has been great; in fact, it has been a comforting experience to return to a “normal” daily routine after spending the last year and a half in virtual classroom settings. However, returning to school has exposed and exacerbated certain factors that may prevent an environment of pre-COVID normalcy from being totally achieved. The push for raising vaccination rates and promoting mask mandates nationwide (both crucial safety measures to help stop the spread of COVID) fail to acknowledge the more subtle, but just as destructive, psychological effects of the pandemic that have impacted every single person in the nation, high schoolers included.
The onset of COVID catalyzed the rapid spread of extreme opinions, societal polarization, and judgment that accumulated over the last couple of years; people were not able to see eye to eye on many COVID-related issues. People argued over government-enforced mask mandates, social distancing protocols released by the CDC, virtual and in-person school options, and, more recently, COVID-19 vaccines (Ballotpedia, 2020).
Moreover, the widespread social isolation that people have experienced over the last couple of years has further aggravated these issues. Anxiety and depression rates have spiked within all age groups (Panchal et al., 2021). However, COVID-19 has affected students of all ages in a more unique way. The new levels of personal stress have caused many students to develop more pessimistic attitudes, having negative effects on their outlook on life (Ren et al., 2021). For younger adolescents, the pandemic cut off nearly all social interactions with peers and friends (NAMI California, 2021). In combination with heightened tensions, the novel psychological effects resulted in an uncomfortable and volatile social environment in the U.S that will not immediately vanish after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this sense, these psychological effects may be the longest-lasting effects of the pandemic.
While this is not the happiest perspective on the pandemic, truly acknowledging the extent of the societal divide that COVID exposed is the first step in facilitating a solution. The next step is to understand why — to get to the root of the issues that are separating us the most: controversies on masking, school closures, and vaccine encouragement (Ballotpedia, 2020).
For example, the issue of COVID-19 vaccines clearly illustrates how COVID-19 has affected people not just physically, but emotionally as well. In schools especially, the discussion of vaccination status has become almost taboo (Sparks, 2021). If students are constantly wary of being attacked for holding a different opinion regarding the vaccines, their incentive to talk to those who hold the opposite views of the vaccine is little to none. The silent judgment arising from all sides of the COVID debates forced people apart, causing distrust and hostility to spread more rapidly.
Once the most discordant topics are identified, efforts to mediate any controversy and hostility can then be employed. Everyone needs to make a conscious effort to listen; not every topic warrants an intense debate. Rather than attack the person who holds certain views, Americans should focus on their beliefs. Once people begin viewing each other as more than merely their views on pandemic-related issues, more positive interpersonal communication can be facilitated, which will ultimately prompt this large societal divide to start closing.
It is important to reiterate that the pandemic is not over. The health effects may be diminishing as vaccination rates rise and the number of new COVID cases drop, but the emotional and mental effects do not appear to be following the same pattern. The division that COVID-19 exposed in the U.S grows wider every day, with Americans throughout the country stuck in a strained and uneasy social atmosphere – a stark contrast from pre-COVID times nearly two years ago. Though it will take time to fully address these issues, acting to minimize these effects now will allow the U.S to truly begin to heal from the pandemic.
Lucy Burns Institute. (n.d.). Arguments in the debate over responses to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 2020. Ballotpedia. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://ballotpedia.org/Arguments_in_the_debate_over_responses_to_the_coronavirus_(COVID-19)_pandemic,_2020#School_closures
NAMI California. (2020, September 17). School during the pandemic: Mental health impacts on students. NAMI California. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://namica.org/blog/impact-on-the-mental-health-of-students-during-covid-19/
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Sparks, S. D. (2021, September 28). How 'vaccine discrimination' laws make it harder for schools to limit Covid spread. Education Week. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/how-vaccine-discrimination-laws-make-it-harder-for-schools-to-limit-covid-spread/2021/09