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Your Student's Mental Health: How To Help During COVID-19


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The coronavirus pandemic has upended our college students’ lives. Campuses have closed, graduation ceremonies were cancelled and, although colleges and universities are announcing plans to at least partially reopen, no one really knows what the fall semester will look like.

The good news is that many students are making the best of the situation by using this unexpected time at home to strive for self-improvement or learn a new skill, and to spend more time with their families.

But that doesn’t mean that everything’s rosy. Your student may be dealing with very real and serious mental health challenges due in no small part to all the disruptions and uncertainty they’re experiencing.

Even before COVID-19, NPR reported a mental health epidemic was taking place on college campuses across the country. Mental health issues in college students have been on the rise in recent years.

The current situation has only compounded the problem. Many things may contribute to college stress, depression and a general sense of emotional instability including:

  • Concern about finding a job after graduation
  • Difficulty transitioning to remote learning
  • Challenges of living back at home
  • Social isolation; missing friends and campus life
  • Worry about their health and the health of loved ones

During this difficult time, we can help our students create strategies to avoid stress and anxiety. We can also model good emotional self-care, and be aware of how stress and anxiety might be impacting our own lives.

In some situations, our college students may need the help of a mental health professional. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides this guide to warning signs that may signal someone needs more serious attention.

If you’re concerned that your student’s depression is beyond the tips recommended in this article, you can start by calling the U.S Department of Health & Human Services’ National Helpline for Mental Health at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

If you think, however, that your student is in a bit of a slump due to the stress of remote learning, being away from friends, and uncertainty about when and if they'll be able to return to a normal life in college, here are five tips that may help them out.

Stay Active

Exercise is essential to physical and mental wellness. But it can be hard for your student to prioritize exercise with everything else that’s going on in their lives, and social distancing and facility closures don't help.

If your student is struggling to get moving, here are a few ideas to inspire them:

Explore online exercise classes
  • The internet has a wealth of high-quality exercise classes that are available on-demand or in real-time.
  • There are free videos all over YouTube. More focused courses from brands like CorePower charge a relatively affordable monthly fee to access their library of online yoga and exercise classes.
Get a remote exercise buddy
  • Schedule weekly video calls to exercise together or just to talk about your exercise goals and keep each other on track.
Sign up for a remote dance party
  • DJs around the world are hosting epic dance parties that your student can join right from their own room.
  • The best part is that your student can find pretty much any style of music to dance to — EDM, hip hop, salsa, you name it.

Eat Healthy

Good nutrition is critical to maintaining sound emotional health and relieving stress, during college or any other time of life. Without a normal routine, young adults may be tempted to snack throughout the day (and late into the night). Encourage healthy eating by stocking the house with the kinds of foods that will enrich your student's body and mind.

Here are some ideas for healthy foods to keep around that are easy for your student to prepare.

For breakfast:
  • Quick-cooking (not instant) rolled or steel-cut oats with toppings
  • Yogurt (non-dairy options are available) and resh fruit
  • Peanut butter (the natural kind without added sugar) — almond butter is a tasty alternative
  • Multigrain frozen toaster waffles
For lunch, try some healthy ingredients for sandwiches:
  • Multigrain or gluten-free bread, or try a garden or spinach wrap (next to the tortillas in your grocery store)
  • Sliced chicken or turkey breast
  • Tomatoes, cucumbers, greens and alfalfa sprouts
  • Avocados and pickles
  • Hummus and mustard
  • Low-fat mayo
For dinner (when they're not joining the family meal):
For snacking:
  • Apples, bananas and any fruit in season — nectarines, plums and berries are terrific right now
  • String cheese, cottage cheese
  • Granola
  • Veggie chips
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Popcorn (without tons of salt and butter)
  • Hard-boiled eggs

Get Enough Sleep

Quality sleep is essential to all of us, especially college students. Sleep ensures that our brains can step up to the daily demands of studying and work, and it has a big impact on mental health.

However, for many college students, getting enough sleep isn’t a top priority. Late nights in front of the TV, computer and video games don’t help, especially if the rest of the family is up and at it bright and early the next morning.

If your student is a night owl, be mindful of waking them up in the morning. Communicate with your family about allowing your student to get the rest they need.

On the other hand, if your student wants to sleep but struggles to fall asleep at a decent hour, they might try the following:

  • Using a sleep mask to block out light
  • Wearing ear plugs to minimize noise disturbances
  • Playing soothing sounds of the ocean or rainfall at low volume
  • Getting regular exercise to help foster better sleep (just not right before bedtime)

Search for a Job

You may have an incoming college senior who's feeling stressed about their job prospects after graduation. Maybe your student is just desperate to make extra spending money, relieve boredom and/or find something meaningful to do with their time.

Stress, boredom, financial worries and angst about the future are all ingredients for mental health problems. So what can your student do? Look for a job!

There are many work and volunteer opportunities out there for college students willing to look for them, including:

Find Ways to Have Fun at Home

One big potential cause of depression and anxiety among college students is boredom and frustration that they can’t do the usual fun and fulfilling summer activities.

With a little bit of creativity, you and your student can make your summer at home into a proper staycation.

A few ideas for at-home fun with college students:

Staying Healthy When Campuses Reopen

Whether your student ends up heading back to campus this fall or at a later date, you’ll want to make sure they’re armed with the knowledge and resources they need to stay on top of their mental health.

That starts with knowing where they can find support on campus. Most college health centers offer mental health services. And beyond that, telehealth is an excellent 24/7 option.

Read our complete guide to finding health care on college campuses >

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