Experts Provide Mental Health Tips Amid Pandemic-Related Stressors - Higher Education

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Experts Provide Mental Health Tips Amid Pandemic-Related Stressors

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Over the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted the lives of people around the world.

Dr. Patrice Harris

In the United States, the death rate has reached an upwards of 90,000 and the unemployment rate increased to 14.7% in April, according to Statista. With social distancing policies and stay-at-home orders in place throughout the country, schools and businesses have transitioned to remote learning and work.

“It has significantly changed almost everyones life in terms of their normal routines, their lifestyles and how they spend their days,” said Dr. Annelle Primm, senior medical advisor at The Steve Fund.

The rush to go online significantly impacted college students. Distance learning became an added stressor as not every student had access to the necessary technology and Wi-Fi at home.

With many schools closing their campus housing too, students already facing food and housing insecurity found themselves in a precarious situation. Around half of all two-year students and almost one-third of four-year college students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity or both in 2019, according to the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.

Additionally, for many students who returned to their families for quarantine, home may not be a safe haven. Instead, home might mean facing physical and emotional abuse.

In consequence, the changes and uncertainties of the pandemic have negatively affected the mental health of young people and adults in the United States.

For 80% of young adults, COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health, Active Minds reported. On the other hand, 45% of American adults shared the same sentiment in a Kaiser Family Foundation report.

To cope with the mental strain of the pandemic, experts from the American Medical Association (AMA), Active Minds, which advocates for student mental health, and The Steve Fund, which supports mental and emotional health among young people of color, laid out the following seven tips:

  • Practice self-care and be compassionate with yourself.
  • Acknowledge your feelings.
  • Stay connected with family and friends.
  • Establish a new routine.
  • Limit time watching the news.
  • Find humor in situations.
  • Be nice to others and help when needed.

Since self-care habits vary by individual, Becky Fein, director of training and engagement at Active Minds, recommended making a personal list.

“We know that when you are kind of in an elevated state of anxiety, it can be challenging to recall what is healthy in these moments,” she said. Thus, Fein said it can be beneficial to create “a list that you can call on when youre struggling.”

Participating in physical exercise is one type of self-care. Though gyms are closed, online exercise classes remain an alternative option. People can also still walk around their neighborhoods or dance to music in the house.

Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the AMA, said people should be “attentive to their own needs” which includes maintaining a healthy diet and sleep schedule.

Additionally, establishing a schedule and routine as well as building in time for activities can create a sense of normalcy.

“What do you do when your life has been so overscheduled and then you have nothing,” said Dr. Jan Collins-Eaglin, associate dean of students for personal success and wellness at Pomona College. “Its really important to set a schedule. The other is to [practice] mindfulness, meditation and affirmation. That really helps to counter the negative self-talk that can just take over and continue to depress you.”

Becky Fein

Besides fear and anxiety, many people may also be dealing with grief due to the death of a loved one from the virus or the loss of graduation ceremonies, birthday celebrations or other milestones.

“I would say to allow yourself to feel whatever feelings you’re having,” said Harris. “And another overarching thought is lower your expectations. … I would say just not have an expectation that everythings going to go fine. There will be days when it just does not go well. And thats okay too.”

Collins-Eaglin said although the term “social distancing” refers to physical distance, there is still a way to “socially connect” through online video platforms such as Zoom or Skype.

“Isolating yourself … is not a good thing,” said Collins-Eaglin, who is also the senior scientific advisor at The Steve Fund. “Calling friends, seeing friends, using the technology that we have to connect is really important because social support is a foundation of emotional well-being.”

Additionally, Primm acknowledged that individuals should restrict their media consumption, especially the news.

“I think its important to stay abreast of whats going on and obtaining critical information but not to overdose on that or to overwatch media that continues to [repeat] the number of deaths and the amounts of infections occurring,” she added.

Keeping conversations light and practicing kindness can also help with the coping process.

“In times like these, its not always [good] to be so self-focused but to also find ways of helping others,” she said. “And showing kindness. So, I think keeping the humor and the kindness in mind is another aspect of how we can create some balance even in these tough times.”

In terms of how businesses and schools can provide support, Fein suggested doing wellness check-ins.

“Its just showing up for people in casual ways, maybe its on Snapchat or a text message or a phone call,” she said. “We are seeing that that is one of the biggest things that employees are asking for among their colleagues and managers. So, showing up for each other and checking in that way is super important right now.”

Additionally, employers can demonstrate their support by being flexible if employees are sick or taking care of a family member in need.

“This pandemic has amplified the need for mental health resources,” said Harris. “Of course, this need existed before COVID-19 and often times, these needs were unmet. We will have to make sure that as we get through the acute phase of this, businesses continue to support employees and make sure they support their employees with getting the mental health services and care that they need.”

In terms of resources, Active Minds created a COVID-19 information hub on their website. These resources cater to young adults, schools, parents, communities and remote workers. Active Minds also hosts live webinars to discuss the pandemics impact.

Sarah Wood can be reached at swood@diverseeducation.com.

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