School is stressful enough without a layered pandemic. Here are some tips for caring for and keeping your feet on the ground.
Eat right, get plenty of rest, prioritize self-care, and seek help. This is standard mental health advice for incoming postsecondary students. In many ways, the COVID era has reinforced this advice. In others, it guarantees its own.
To be prepared
Don’t wait for a crisis to find out what mental health supports are available at your school. Sarah Pennisi, director of Brock University’s Center for Student Wellness and Accessibility, recommends researching and reaching out to wellness centers on campus to get an idea of the services available and how to access them even before school starts.
Darlene Heslop, director of the Campus Health and Wellness Center at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario, compares mental health problems with physical ones. Just as the body experiences symptoms in the 24 hours before a heart attack, there are often signs of impending mental health crises in the days and weeks before they occur.
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“We should do a kind of inventory of how we are doing every day so that we don’t get to that point,” he says. “If he intervenes earlier, hopefully he will prevent that crisis.” Students should develop a routine and schedule self-care in their days, Heslop says; This can help keep mental health a priority throughout the year.
Communicate what’s working
Mental health support should be an ongoing dialogue between students and postsecondary service providers, Pennisi says. Students must communicate what is working for them and what is not as they form lasting relationships on campus. “Once the counselor knows what the student needs, they can respond,” she says. “The main thing is dialogue.”
Heslop encourages the use of Zoom and other video chat services only if they will “fill your cup” rather than leave you drained. If the video chats are too strenuous, please report it to your service providers. Several wellness centers on campus now offer counseling options by phone or text message.
Pennisi relates to a Brock University counselor trying to navigate virtual counseling for a student with Zoom fatigue. The counselor and student eventually decided to take separate walks, put on the headphones, and have their session over the phone.
“Mental health supports really try to help people understand what is happening and to co-create some strategies that [you] one step closer to achieving anything [you] I want to achieve, ”says Pennisi.
Acknowledge pain, adjust expectations
The term “disenfranchised duel” has appeared in studies and articles throughout the pandemic. It’s a term often used when a pet or ex-spouse dies and refers to grief that society doesn’t enthusiastically acknowledge. Many students spend years working and dreaming about their first year in higher education. Feeling deep sadness or loss at the reality of distance learning is “completely normal,” says Heslop.
The first step to acceptance is acknowledging resentment, anger, or other negative emotions, Pennisi says. “The more aware students are of their own expectations and values, the more equipped they will be to connect with whatever does to them. [the post-secondary] experience what they expect and want, ”he says.
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As schools changed online, so did many higher education clubs, initiatives, and opportunities. Pennisi, virtually or socially distanced, says that building healthy relationships on campus and connecting with the right people is key to a satisfying experience.
With isolation and confinement feelings of helplessness can arise. And with comfort food always around, many are returning to in-person activities in slightly different bodies. In a Dalhousie University study, nearly three-quarters of participants reported pandemic-induced changes in eating habits, and nearly 60 percent reported unwanted weight changes.
As schools slowly reopen, try to find comfort in the shared discomfort of “a bad year,” says Pennisi. “Understand that most of us will feel, in some way, that discomfort and anguish.”
“Whatever you’ve done in the last year to survive is a good thing,” says Heslop. “I am very proud of all of us for surviving a global pandemic.”
Students need to know that they are not alone, he adds, and see the value of asking for help. “In the meantime, let’s do what we have to do to improve mentally, because that will help you prosper in your life.”