With the presence of COVID-19 changing the semester, students may have trouble with taking care of their mental health in this time of stress.
Students and their families may have to deal with the stress of being physically prepared, which involves having enough food and other supplies. They also may have to deal with the emotional stress of the virus and how it is unlike other disasters, Jeff Fant, extension agent of Disaster Assessment & Recovery for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, said.
“Anytime there's a disaster comes up, it's the fear of the unknown,” Fant said. “You have a huge concern over you know, what's going to not only going to happen to you personally, but what's going to happen to your friends and families and you know, those closest to you.”
He said in the cases of other natural disasters and emergencies, the disaster is short lived, like a tornado, and after it is over, generally, one can then survey the damage then rebuild.
“It's a rebuilding process, you know, you find out your family and say, ‘Okay, we're good. We can start rebuilding this,’” Fant said. “It's such a long drawn out ongoing process, that it changes your aspect. So, you know, you have to really take care of, you know, those emotional things for the long term. It's not something that you can just say, ‘Okay, I'm gonna fix this today, and we're going to be done with it then.’”
This added stress can negatively impact both mental and physical health, David Trotter, executive director of the Texas Tech Student Health Services, said.
“It can lead to decreases in overall functioning, actually can lead to some immune suppression makes people a little bit more susceptible to illness or, you know, making it hard for them to recover from illnesses,” he said. “We know just, you know, prolonged stress just makes us feel kind of miserable.”
Social distancing and being away from one’s usual group and connections can also impact stress and mental health, Dr. Sarah Wakefield, director of child and adolescent psychiatry services, said.
“Especially when we're all separated in isolation very quickly, we can get access to you know, we have access to news, but we don't have access to the typical coping strategies that we have,” she said. “But a lot of things that we do in groups that make us feel better or make us feel calmer, (add) different opinions and so we have a lot of one-sided information coming in. When you're in isolation, getting that kind of information can really drive symptoms very quickly.”
In terms of mental health services, Trotter said the first step for mental health professionals is making sure those who need care can access it.
“Our first task is to ensure that people who need access to professional care can still get it,” Trotter said. “We're doing that by transitioning the care that we provide to tele-mental health services. And, like I said, we're seeing that we're not the only ones doing that.”
The next two steps are focusing on established patients and educating the general public on managing stress, he said.
One way to manage stress is being mindful of how much media and social media one consumes, he said.
“It's about quality, not quantity, focus on focus on really high-quality information,” Trotter said. “So what I what I've been recommending to my own patients is, you know, max pick one trusted local media outlet and one trusted national media outlet and then stick to that.”
Wakefield said finding an hour or two to not think about COVID-19 can be beneficial for energy levels.
“The third thing that I talked about a lot is communicating with someone you love and who loves you, at least every day,” Wakefield said. “And that can be at home, with people at your home, or via text via email, FaceTime, Zoom, all of these different platforms, but really actually talking with someone who cares about you and who you care about. And making sure you're kind of getting outside of your own brain for a little while and making that human connection, even if it's via virtual connection.”
She also said being sure to eat and sleep are the two most important things to do to help with stress.
“Schedules are varied right now, people are either living in very different schedules than they have and they're trying to figure out what works for them, but that can very easily lead to kind of snacking all day overeating, over drinking, not nourishing your body with things that are really healthy,” Wakefield said. “Also, erratic sleep patterns, you know, staying up late at night, because you have more flexibility in your schedule the next day. All of these things can lead to compromises in your mental health fairly quickly, if you're not vigilant about it.”
Fant said finding a hobby to work on can also be beneficial.
“If it's if it's watching movies, or if it's, you know, working in the yard, whatever, building, I like to work in the garage and build woodworking projects and stuff,” Fant said “So, after I came after I came back from Hurricane Harvey, I had all kinds of little woodworking projects that I finished, like, I have no idea what I'm going to do with 90 percent of that stuff, but it gave me an outlet away from the disaster to help me you know, kind of process that and just kind of reassimilate myself to normal, more normal life.”
For those struggling with mental health and feel overwhelmed, the following resources are available:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline- 1-800-273-8255
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration- 1-800-662-4357
National Domestic Violence Hotline- 1-800-799-7233
Texas COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line- 833-986-1919
Texas Tech Crisis Helpline- 806-742-5555
TTU Student Counseling Center- 806-742-3674; Monday - Friday 8:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m.