In the midst of a semester altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have found their mental health worsening due to a combination of school and pandemic-related stressors. As the semester goes on, University mental health professionals recommend finding new and positive ways to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances.
Social distancing and isolation in particular can both have detrimental effects on mental health, especially among young adults aged 18 to 24 and Black and Latinx communities.
“Signs and symptoms of deteriorating mental health may include sudden, unusual changes in mood, such as tearfulness, despair or irritability; increased social isolation or withdrawal; heightened anxiety, dread or panic; and poor functioning such as insomnia or excessive sleep, under or over-eating, and not attending classes or keeping up with other responsibilities,” said Nicole Ruzek, counseling and psychological services director, in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Jamie Leonard, director of the Office of Health Promotion, recommends that students try to spend time outside, whether that means completing school work or visiting the University’s gardens, as well as make time for exercise, such as a walk or socially distant fitness class.
“One thing that students may have noticed is that what they have done in the past to address their mental well-being may now not be working as they are trying to manage the added layer of the pandemic,” Leonard said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Therefore, I would suggest that students try something that they’ve never done before, or maybe circle back around to something they’ve tried in the past which didn’t stick for them but they may find helpful now.”
It is also important for students to safely socialize with others, eat balanced meals, practice positive thinking by focusing on good things that happen each day and limit news and social media consumption.
“Human beings are wired to engage socially, and one of the major developmental milestones of early adulthood is to learn to successfully navigate and sustain peer relationships,” Ruzek said. “In order to deal with isolation, it is vital to stay connected with people in whatever ways possible … and to maintain a healthy and consistent routine that includes exercise and spending time away from screens.”
During a time filled with uncertainty, Zach Westerbeck — a mental health advocate, public speaker and author focused on encouraging college students to seek mental health support — suggests students create a routine that prioritizes sleep. Westerbeck became an advocate after being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder in his early twenties. He now collaborates with Greek communities to create workshops across the country that help college students understand and normalize mental health.
“You want to pick the same time you go to bed and the same time you wake up because your brain gets used to that and creates a habit, so it’s easier to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning feeling energized,” Westerbeck said. “Anything less than six hours of sleep is going to impact your cognitive abilities and your ability to deal with stressors.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least seven hours of sleep for adults over the age of 18. Westerbeck also advocates for meditating every day as a healthy way to address one’s mental well-being.
“Meditation is nothing more than the practice of sitting there and trying your best to focus on your breath for 10 minutes,” Westerbeck said. “From experience, I can tell you that I have never once for 10 minutes sat and focused on my breath. My mind wanders … but the exercise that you give your brain is the art of getting your attention back and focusing on your breath. The benefits are really endless with meditation.”
In addition to advocating for healthy practices that positively affect mental health, Westerbeck emphasizes the importance of normalizing the discussion of mental health.
“The biggest barrier to seeking help is just changing people’s perspective, overcoming the stigma for what it means to have mental health and getting them to see it as something that is normal,” Westerbeck said.
One way that Westerbeck does this is by referring to mental health as “brain health.” In the same way that people talk about heart health and take action to prevent heart disease, Westerbeck hopes that the term brain health will help others realize that the brain is also a tangible organ that they can take care of through the correct steps.
“Everybody should share their story with mental health, and they should talk about it openly and confidently,” Westerbeck said. “Through that process of just sharing, we can begin to normalize talking about depression and anxiety and being overwhelmed the same way we would talk about having a cough or a fever or a cold.”
Through routine actions, like going for a walk or socially distanced picnics with friends, and openly talking about their mental state, students can take care of their mental health while balancing stress from classwork and the pandemic.
“This pandemic has highlighted for students that addressing their well-being is not only important, but that it has had tangible benefits,” Leonard said. “It is important for students to provide themselves some room to experience their emotions and explore ways to address them in a healthy way. Taking care of themselves means that they can then take care of others.”
While the aforementioned practices can be beneficial to one’s mental health, mental health professionals also recommend seeking professional help.
Counseling and Psychological Services provides remote mental health services, including individual and group therapy sessions, via telehealth. If you do not have a private space to access video sessions, CAPS also provides confidential spaces at the Student Health and Wellness building and has recently created support spaces specifically for Black students. For alternatives to CAPS, the Maxine Platzer Lynn’s Women’s Center offers psychological services to University students, and Psychology Today can help you find mental health providers by zip code.
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.