In an address, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II described the year 1992 as an annus horribilis—a horrible year. The Wikipedia entry for the phrase nicely summarizes the Queen’s misgivings with that particular journey around the sun: a yearlong extravaganza of royal divorce, the publication of a tell-all book, nude paparazzi photographs, and a palace fire.
Nearly 30 years on, 2020 has unfolded into something that my Latin minor allows me to confidently term an annus horribilissimus—a year so horrible that it makes a regular bad year look like a backyard barbeque.
Nothing about this school year is normal, and it’s worth remembering that as we all trudge forward through this simulacrum of a semester. Within the minds of students and instructors, there is no single elephant in the room. Rather, a Hannibalic army of them is actively crushing our morales with its immense weight. There is the virus. But there is also the politicization of public health. And the election. And the imminent Supreme Court confirmation. And the screen fatigue. And the lack of exercise. And the economy. And any number of quotidian obstacles that make our lives just that much harder.
Even our conceptions of how we dress ourselves and interact with other people—such fundamental aspects of our humanity—have been indelibly altered. Just a little over six months ago, almost none of us even considered wearing face coverings; now masks of cotton and nylon have been woven into the very fabric of our lives. Nor had any of us heard of Zoom until the early spring; now its ubiquity has lent it the same verbal force that “Google” earned in the early 2000s.
Yet despite these experiences, which are by this point common to us all, a profound sense of disconnectedness has manifested itself ever more clearly as the months have dragged on. Those of us who are living on or near campus are tantalizingly close to our friends and colleagues, but they might as well be on the other side of the planet for how much we really get to see them.
We can all be forgiven if, at times, it seems that the clouds that loom over our collective consciousness seem to lack any silver linings, and instead form a monolith of stormy gloom. For my part, I have battled with some of the most profound bouts of anxiety and depression that I’ve experienced in my almost four years at Boston College.
In their reopening rhetoric, BC officials have done everything in their effort to downplay these realities, and to sound the note that this year will be just like any other, with only a few inconvenient adjustments. The flurry of summer emails students received in their inboxes and the maroon and gold technocratic signage littered throughout campus have suggested a conditional promise of normalcy: If you do all these things, then we can have school just like usual.
But this is a dangerously fantastical apodosis. Administrators have submitted blind credence to the false notion that anything could ever make college in a pandemic normal, and our emotional and mental well-being has been the worse off for it. The criteria for physical safety by means of distancing, mask-wearing, and isolation—which, to be clear, I support from a public health perspective wholeheartedly—have been anything but conducive to psychological well-being.
In preparing for the semester, it was clear that the administration had its hands tied. After all, an entirely virtual semester would have received backlash from students and donors alike (although some firmness of resolve should have been enough to assuage the administration’s fears). A completely digital BC would have made many students brace themselves for ever-worsening cabin fever at home, or even fear for their physical safety if their home environments are unhealthy.
Even if a totally remote semester has been taken off the table, though, the administration still bears a responsibility for ensuring that this semester is actually worth it, and for making an earnest attempt to alleviate students’ very real feelings of lonely despair.
There have been no shortage of suggestions for ways in which this could be done. Perhaps the most doable is that which was urged by this paper’s editorial board a few weeks ago: Test every student regularly. Multiple other universities in the Boston area are doing so, and the fact that BC hasn’t followed suit is a devastating deviation from the University’s normal habit of copying whatever Harvard does, like a toddler miming its older sibling in order to be taken seriously.
Another investment that BC should have made before the semester started, but still has time to address, is a dramatic expansion of University Counseling Services, which right now has its resources stretched as thin as the single-ply toilet paper in freshman dorm bathrooms. UCS employs 23 staff members who work with BC students, which is inadequate for the size of the school’s overall student body. The relatively small number of therapists and psychiatrists means that some students are unable to access long-term counseling there. I can attest that I myself have had to go off campus to find therapy for this very reason.
Such neglect stems from the false notion that physical health is more “real” and important than mental health. As a result of this thinking, the University is more focused on wooing prospective undergraduates with a multi-million-dollar, fieldstone-bejeweled recreation center than it is on helping to support the wellbeing of the students it already has.
But caring for our community’s mental health has never been more crucial. One survey conducted by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association found that between March and May of this year, there was an increase in rates of depression among college students, and higher levels of students reported that their mental health impaired their academic performance than did in the fall. And those numbers were high to begin with.
One last action step is to revive last semester’s pass/fail option for all classes, regardless of whether a course is an elective or a requirement. As a chronic perfectionist, I can promise the academic deans that I did not use the P/Fs last semester as an excuse to slack off by any means. But declaring some of my classes as pass/fail did help keep things in perspective and let me achieve at least a somewhat healthier balance between my studies and my sanity.
Vice President for Student Affairs Joy Moore, Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley, Directory of University Health Services Doug Comeau, and the endless angelic ranks of BC’s academic bureaucracy have announced loud and clear that these times are “unusual” and “unprecedented.” Now, it’s time for this Jesuit, Catholic institution to take its words to heart by allocating a commensurately unprecedented amount of its resources to care for its students.
Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Editor