How College Students Can Prioritize Mental Health During the COVID-19 Outbreak

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In my last two months of college, I thought I would be cherishing time with my friends, tying up loose ends with my student organizations, and making the most of the little time I had left in a college town.

Instead, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, my college experience as I know it has abruptly been cut short — a disruption shared by college students across the country.

Over a matter of days, it seems almost everything has changed. Classes are being held on virtual platforms. Events and rituals — including graduation ceremonies — are being cancelled. Some colleges have strongly encouraged students to leave campus, while others have mandated it.

The general sentiment among college students is one of disbelief, disappointment, and sadness. While I understand and strongly agree with the social distancing measures being implemented, it doesn’t make the transition any easier. No one was expecting this, and it’s more important now than ever before to make sure we stay connected, supported, and mentally well.

Moving Back Home

Many students are leaving campus and moving back in with their family, either because their campus has required them to leave or because of their family’s preference. While some students may welcome this time with family, others will find it extremely challenging.

If you have a stressful home life, you are not alone. After adjusting to life on campus, home is not an ideal situation for many students, and being stripped of your choice to live elsewhere can be devastating. Dr. Amy Cirbus reminds us that this is an adjustment period for both you and your family, so try to be patient. She adds, “give yourself permission, and your family permission, to make mistakes. Try again tomorrow and do the best you can.”

If this is the scenario you find yourself in, here are some tips to improve the situation and hopefully weather it with grace:

  • Set boundaries
    Let your family know your online class schedule and when you’ll be engaging in schoolwork. To the best of your ability, find private, quiet places in your home to be alone. You can also set boundaries around what topics you will and will not talk about with your family, and choose not to engage if they try to bring up certain topics that are uncomfortable or triggering.
  • Stay connected to your friends
    Your family doesn’t have to be your only social interaction each day. Stay in touch with friends through texting, phone calls, and video chat, and allow them to support you. While we may not have all the answers about what happens next, verbalizing our concerns with others can help ease the strain.
  • Go on walks
    Though social distancing is critical and many public spaces are closing as a preventative measure, you can (and should) go on walks if that’s a viable option in your area and you are feeling physically able. Use these walks as an opportunity to get fresh air and some space from your family.

If you feel physically unsafe in your current living situation, please reach out to a trusted friend or other family member as soon as possible. In the meantime, Dr. Amy Cirbus recommends creating emotionally safe boundaries, like those discussed above. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline.

Feel Your Feelings

Over the past week, some people have ridiculed others for expressing sadness or anger as plans change and events get cancelled. These people employ the tactic of reminding you how bad others have it — people are sick and dying, afterall — so what do you really have to complain about?

What this perspective fails to acknowledge is that this is not how human emotions work. Our feelings don’t disappear just because we have the knowledge that others deal with bigger, more serious problems. Trying to make these feelings disappear can actually make them come back stronger.

However, it is possible to have it both ways. We can acknowledge that others in this country and the world are dealing with bigger problems than those that we are as young, healthy college students. We can practice social distancing because we know we owe it to our most vulnerable citizens. We can accept the reality of what is, and we can also be extremely sad and disappointed about it. Feeling our own feelings and being empathetic towards the hardships of others are in no way mutually exclusive.

During this challenging time, allow yourself to process your feelings. Talk about it, journal, and sit with your emotions. We are grieving the loss of an important period of time in our lives that we will never get back — and we are allowed to feel sad about it.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

In the midst of this crisis, it is just as important to take care of our mental health as it is our physical health. In addition to staying connected to friends and safely exercising, here are some other tips to prioritize your mental wellness:

  • Limit your news intake
    The constant influx of news notifications takes a toll on our mental health and energy levels. Stay informed, but take intentional breaks from consuming news, and consider only reading/watching a few trusted sources.
  • Have a routine
    Many college students have relatively little structure to their days to begin with, as compared to school-age children or working professionals. Now, even the minimal structure of being on-campus is disappearing. Make routines for yourself, even if it’s just a few small things, like making your bed every morning or eating lunch at the same time everyday.
  • Move your body
    Even without access to a gym, it’s important to engage in exercise for both our physical and mental health. Walk, run, bike, or use at-home video workouts.
  • Do activities you enjoy
    Some of the activities you love doing may not be options right now, but we can still read, listen to music and podcasts, make art, watch movies, and more. Try to engage in one activity each day that brings you joy.

Most importantly, make sure you have access to a mental health professional during this crisis if you need one. Many students are unsure of the state of their mental health care, as they may be moving away from their on-campus or near-campus counselor. You may be able to do telephone or video chat appointments with your provider, or can explore online options like online therapy with Talkspace.

College was already a time when it felt like so much is changing everyday. In the midst of change on a massive scale, let’s continue to look out for each other and prioritize our well-being.

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