Six Feet Apart, an Emotional Toll

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
By Susanne Haga, PhD
COVID Diaries, Susanne Haga, PhD

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of first-person essays by members of the Duke community reflecting on a year living with COVID-19.

On the first day of class last August, I stared at the tape on the floor and decided to take a picture. This represented the invisible wall I was supposed to stand behind to keep myself (and the students) safe, a ‘shield charm’ of sorts in the Hogwarts world. Likewise, stickers were scattered on the floor around the classroom to indicate the location of the desks, six feet apart. As an instructor who likes the freedom to wander around the room during class, particularly during discussions, this was yet another behavior I had to change in my work. But as the semester wore on, maintaining a physical distance became easier to comply with, though at times challenging due to my bad eyes when I peered over a student’s shoulder (at a distance) to try and help them with an assignment.

More worrisome were the implications of physical distancing. To maintain our physical health, our mental health would take a hit. This was not how any of us were used to behaving, inside or outside of the classroom. While ideas could still be exchanged and laughter emitted through masks, students couldn’t work in close proximity on small group activities, whisper to each other as I was lecturing, or peer at one another’s phones at something that just couldn’t wait till after class. This was a necessary but difficult trade-off to accept — physical distancing helped keep viral transmissions down, but at a cost. Social and emotional engagement is critical in all of our lives, but particularly for young adults and especially freshmen, adjusting to a new environment away from home and the pressures to be academically successful.

Some students learned to adapt to these restrictions and did what they could to find some emotional fulfillment and enjoy the college life experience as much as possible. Others clearly struggled with the restrictions, with declines in mental health adversely impacting other areas of their life. My words of encouragement at times felt empty, particularly when delivered at a distance, and without a reassuring smile, hidden behind a mask. I shared my own frustrations with students to let them know that we are all struggling. But I was cognizant of that balance between being a role model and pillar of strength to being human in front of them.

As the world slowly emerges from this pandemic, we will all continue to evolve and adapt in our unique way to the new world we now exist. Reducing (or removing) the 6-feet physical distance requirements will improve that immeasurable emotional toll we’ve all suffered in the past year. In hindsight, there should have been a warning label on that classroom floor next to the ‘6-feet distance’ tape — “while staying physically distant may save your life, it is hazardous to your emotional health.”

Susanne Haga is an associate professor of medicine, biology and public policy at Duke University.

Story originally published on Medium