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COVID, depression, despair and… comics? How creativity helped me through my first year of college

It is a sad day when “these are difficult times” becomes a cliché, but… these are difficult times, especially for college students. 

Active Minds, an organization devoted to the mental health of college students, conducted a study and concluded that during COVID: 

  • 20 percent of college students reported that their mental health worsened
  • 40 percent had trouble focusing in class and on their work
  • 74 percent of students were challenged in maintaining a routine

As a first-year at Carleton, I read this study and wondered what kind of arc my own mental health took during COVID. Through journal entries, I was able to gain some insight. 

Here are some excerpts from my journal that year, with illustrations. I was lucky enough to be on campus, and you will see me clinging to new friends, shreds of a routine and the cartoons that I would submit to the Carletonian every week. 

This is my real-life account of college during a difficult year, and this is how art and humor—namely cartoons, comics and literary magazines—helped me get through it. 

9.8.20 

First night at college. Dad and Mom cried at the drop-off. I couldn’t. I was physically shaking from adrenaline. They drove away, and I walked to Room 128, which is where I live now, I guess. 

It took me 4 hours to set everything up all by myself—the lights, sheets, posters, desk, clothes. No one was allowed to help me for pandemic reasons. I didn’t meet anyone during those four hours, except for my RAs, and the lady who stuck a Q-tip up my nostrils for COVID testing. I didn’t really know what to do—how to meet people safely, that is. So I walked to the dorm lounge and there were a bunch of first years there playing ping pong. I talked to some of them, and they were great. They weren’t very good at ping pong, though. 

It’s funny, I thought I’d miss home more than I do. I guess I’m more prepared than I thought. 

10.26.20

Classes have started, and I’m finding that each week follows a (Mon + Tues) + (Wed + Thurs) = (Fri + Sat + Sun) formula. 

Mondays and Wednesdays are the days I have THREE Zoom classes (that’s 4.5 hours of Zoom school). Tuesdays and Thursdays are days when I have no classes (homework days). FRIDAYS are fun, though you can’t have too much fun with too many people or you might get put on residential probation. Saturdays can be fun. Sundays are sleepy. 

Also I’ve been submitting cartoons to the college newspaper. So far, my cartoons are not that great, I’m fully aware, but I’m so proud! I’m a cartoonist! Roz Chast and I have something major in common. Essentially, we are the same person (just kidding) (but maybe someday). 

11.10.20

Things to be grateful for: 

  • Donald Trump losing the election 
  • N— for being so cool, kind and funny
  • Coffee, for giving me PURPOSE and STRENGTH
  • The rain, for the smell and sound
  • J— for sending me pizza from Chicago 
  • My parents, for taking my calls 
  • Social media, which sounds weird, but it’s been so helpful in terms of making friends during this pandemic
  • Fridays/Saturdays/Sundays

11.29.20

I’ve been feeling existential these days. Maybe it’s because I’m getting my period soon, or something. Like today, I was thinking, what is the point? Of all this? Is this living? I feel like spending 4 hours on my phone and 6 on my computer is not a good way to spend a life. 

1.11.21

My Spanish prof got mad at everyone for not having their textbooks, which was funny, because no one got mad at her for sending everyone to the wrong breakout rooms every single class. EVERY SINGLE CLASS. 

1.12.21

Overall, a good day. I’m so grateful for college. I could cry, I’m so grateful. I think COVID has increased the weight of happy things in the college equation. 

1.13.21

I had oatmeal for breakfast (and a huge cup of coffee), which I ate in the dorm lobby lounge area because my roommate had an appointment with her doctor from home. Afterwards, I went to grab a package at the student center (surgical masks from Mom and Dad for my flight home in a couple months). 

At 2:30, I had Intro to the Novel, and we discussed Robinson Crusoe. I don’t like it. It’s slow. Also Crusoe is the biggest asshole of all time. We’re reading a bunch of other good British books, though­­­—Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, etc. My group and I stayed after class to talk about a presentation we’re giving in a week.

Then P— asked me to go on a walk, so we trekked around campus. We walked on top of the pond (it was completely iced-over) (don’t tell Mom). 

Tomorrow’s Thursday, thank god. A nice “empty” day (no classes). 

1.18.21

Such a long day. I had track practice at 7:50. Spanish was at 10 a.m. and the clock moved painfully slow. I showered between Spanish and Comp Sci, then had therapy, then had my last class, then had a presentation meeting then met with my Comp Sci prof. Now I’m journaling and listening to music. 

If I didn’t have a roommate, I wouldn’t have talked to another human being in-person all day (unless you count track practice, but we mostly just wheeze and double over from the pain of interval workouts). 

1.19.21

Recent developments: 

  • First week of practice (an entire training pod is in isolation though)
  • My cartoons are getting better, I think—I made one called “Ask a First Year: What’s that building’s purpose?” and three people came up to me in the dining hall to tell me they liked it, which was so nice
  • Republicans seem to be courting the idea of a civil war? Can they not? Can they stop? 
  • I have an English presentation coming up and it’s scaring me
  • Coffee during Zoom class tastes so good
  • 1.28.21

    There aren’t a lot of Real Things during the coronavirus. But the few Real Things are so nice (shoutout friends shoutout snow shoutout food shoutout long walks). 

    2.22.21

    I’m tired and stressed” should be the new “Hi!” Or at the very least, they should get rid of the question, “How are you?” entirely, because everyone has the same response. 

    4.18.21

    I’ve been posting cartoons on Instagram—like, non–college-related ones—and the account now has 1,000 followers. In a month. I can’t stop drawing cartoons. It’s kind of bad. I think I’m addicted. And I’m working on a magazine with my friends, who are all funny and creative. And the track team can compete in races with other teams. 

    It feels like everything is clicking. Wait, I take it back. What if I jinxed it? 

    I’m sitting in my dorm right now, on my bed. I can see all of East campus. It’s grey out and a little windy. Monday’s coming. Maybe that will even everything out.

    Works Cited: https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey/ 

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