The COVID-19 epidemic has caused another public health concern: a rise in mental health issues.
During this time of uncertainty, people are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression, and living in isolation only compounds these mental health struggles.
In the Q&A below, Dr. Jennifer Whitney, director of the Counseling Center at UNC Greensboro, discusses mental health in the age of COVID-19, strategies for managing stress and anxiety, and the importance of checking in with loved ones.
What are some of the mental health concerns that have emerged because of COVID-19?
Anxiety and stress are the overarching emotions folks are experiencing right now. Things are changing so quickly. The moment we think we know something and have started to plan for it, it all changes. And that causes a lot of stress.
I often describe anxiety as free-floating fear – fear of the unknown and anxiety stemming from the uncertainty of the future can be really unsettling for all of us. Unlike many situations that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, the coronavirus pandemic and its future impacts on our work, our families, and our lives are largely unknown. For people who are already struggling with mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety, the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 is exacerbating stress and distress.
A recent blog post from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention discusses “Taking Care of Your Mental Health in Face of Uncertainty.”
The COVID-19 epidemic has impacted university students, faculty, and staff in unique ways. Can you talk more about the mental health implications for these groups?
In addition to uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, students, faculty, and staff alike have all been faced with their semester being upended. Faculty and staff have been engaged in the heavy lift of offering online classes and remote services almost overnight. These pressures, to deliver classes and support services virtually, are in the midst of performing regular work duties, as well as managing their own emotions and reactions to the pandemic and caring for children, parents, family members, and loved ones.
The balls we juggle in the best of times have increased three-fold, and we are dropping some along the way. Employees at UNCG are high performing folks – we work hard and we care hard, which makes trying to juggle all these balls, with the reality that we just can’t juggle them all at once, difficult to accept. But accepting our limitations and realizing our own and each others’ humanity will help us be kinder to ourselves and each other, not just in this time of uncertainty, but hopefully moving forward as well.
Students are grieving the loss of their semester, at least the way they had expected it to go, as well as the loss of their university community in its traditional sense. For some students, returning home is a good thing, while for others, it only increases stress, distress, and uncertainty. Graduating students and their families are grieving the loss of their graduation ceremony, a tradition that commemorates and celebrates their hard work and accomplishments. These students are also facing the uncertainty of what the economy and job market will look like in May.
How can individuals manage high levels of stress and anxiety during this time?
Anxiety lives in the future – fear of what is going to come and what might happen. In the absence of information, the brain is really great at imagining the worst case scenario. Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine to travel into the future and see how things will turn out. Someone once shared this quote with me: “Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t take you anywhere.”
The antidote to anxiety is focusing on the present moment and shifting focus to the things you can control. There are a million ways we engage in decisions everyday that underscore the control we do have. Pay attention to choosing what you wear for the day, what you eat, how you spend your time, and how you show up at work and in your daily life with the people you love. These are all things that you can control. Folks who have heard me talk on campus about the Counseling Center or mental health have inevitably heard me talk about practicing mindfulness. Setting an alarm on your phone to remind you every hour to pause and engage in some deep breathing or a two or three minute guided meditation are wonderful ways to get grounded in the present moment.
We all cope differently, but there are some fundamental positive coping strategies that we should all be paying attention to now.
1. Feed your body and your soul.
Remember to eat regularly in a varied and balanced way. Remember to move your body often and in enjoyable ways. Go outside and enjoy spring and the fresh air – just remember to practice social distancing as you walk around your neighborhood or local park. And there are so many yoga and Taekwondo studios, and other movement-based activities, moving online.
Anxiety is an emotion that has energy. You may notice that you are more fidgety, cranky, or even feel like your body or brain is unpleasantly humming. We have to find a healthy way to discharge and release that extra energy, which brings me to the next way to feed your body and soul – laughter! We often tell clients in moments of distress or despair to engage in the opposite emotion. Laughter is a wonderful way to release that extra energy that comes with anxiety and uncertainty and create structure for yourself. Moving everything to remote and online may have disrupted the typical structure of your day. Take a moment to create a new routine for yourself.
2. Practice gratitude.
It can be easy to focus on things that we are losing or can’t do as a result of this pandemic, but it is also an opportunity to practice gratitude. What you pay attention to is something you can practice controlling. Now is the perfect time to start a gratitude journal. Every morning, identify 5-10 things you are grateful for, and every evening, identify 5-10 things that happened during the day for which you are grateful.
3. Stay connected.
Staying connected, even while social distancing, is crucial. While community events such as church services, weddings, and family gatherings have been cancelled, we thankfully have lots of technology to help us stay connected. Plan a virtual hangout with friends and loved ones. Pick up the phone and talk to friends and family.
How can we best support loved ones who may be struggling with their mental health?
It is key that we are reaching out and checking in with loved ones, especially those we know may be vulnerable. Consider making a virtual check-in on a regular basis, perhaps once a day or once a week. When folks are overwhelmed with anxiety or depression, problem solving or positive coping may be negatively impacted. Helping loved ones identify positive ways to cope and making them aware of the resources that are available are ways that you can support them.
Creating and tapping into community helps remind all of us that we are in this together. Knowing that there are resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Crisis Text Line (text “TALK” to 741741) can help connect us in times of hopelessness, loneliness and struggle. And of course, empathetically listening without judgment, or deeply connecting with someone without trying to solve their problem, can help someone feel less alone, listened to, and really heard.
What are some free online resources that students – and others – can take advantage of?
One of the uplifting things happening in this time of great uncertainty is the number of people putting out support resources and/or making their resources free of charge. Check out our Counseling Center Covid-19 News and Information website for more ideas and lots of resources.
Interview by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications