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A Mental Health Game Plan for College Students and FamiliesRob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC
A few weeks ago, just as my roommate Shay and I finally allowed ourselves to relax into this new (not) normal, we got a text message from a childhood friend Shay had seen recently.
Shay and her friend hadn’t spent time together since before the pandemic, but since the friend was leaving for medical school, we'd agreed it was fine for Shay to go over for a quick goodbye.
Unbeknownst to us, one of the friend’s roommates had some other friends over the day before...one of whom a day or two later ended up testing positive for COVID-19.
That person reached out to let everyone know but she wasn't able to connect with Shay as they’re barely passing acquaintances, so someone had to forward the group message to let us know we should get tested. This whole process took days, which meant in the meantime we potentially (and unknowingly) exposed some of our own close friends.
Prior to this, it felt like everything had calmed down a bit. Shay and I weren’t as scared of grocery stores, our paranoia about getting sick had eased, and we were venturing out for safe mini-adventures like hikes and picnics. It felt good to pay more attention to our mental health needs instead of just resigning ourselves to the confines of our apartment.
Waking up again to danger was a shock. We spent the morning calling (and apologizing to) every person we'd seen recently. And just like that, life became all about pandemic fear again.
We tried not to be annoyed or overly frustrated with the people who weren’t upfront about the risks they might be taking, but it’s hard to stay positive when you have to cancel all your plans plus handle the guilt of possibly exposing loved ones.
Maybe you've heard a similar story from your college student or recent grad. Sometimes it feels like nothing we're doing — the sacrifices and precautions — is ever going to be enough.
Then at other times, even on these short, dark November days, we feel hopeful. We can do this. We are doing this!
Here's a snapshot of student perspectives as we near the end of Fall Term 2020, along with ways you can support your student between now and winter break.
Even students who’ve adapted well to remote learning and pandemic disruptions still feel overwhelmed. It’s hard not knowing when things will return to normal, and suspecting that next semester will be more of the same.
"My mood definitely changes on a weekly basis," one college junior observed. "During weeks where I have a lot going on and don't have as much time to get outside or do fun activities with friends, life definitely feels a lot harder."
1. Staying motivated. As the weeks have gone on, some students are struggling to stay up-to-date with assignments and to participate in virtual classes. It’s hard not being able to build in-person relationships and a support network with people in your courses. Hopping on and off Zoom isn’t the same as sitting next to someone in class. “It’s challenging to maintain the motivation,” a senior at the University of Minnesota commented.
2. Remembering what day it is. The blurring together of days and weeks makes time management extra difficult. “Without going to class and discussing the upcoming assignments, I find myself forgetting when the big projects are,” said one student whose classes are all online.
3. Not going stir crazy. “It’s difficult feeling like I'm constantly looking at a screen… My biggest challenge right now is making sure I find time to get outside. It's hard feeling like I'm trapped in an apartment,” said a junior in California.
4. Keeping all the balls in the air. On top of the usual end-of-semester academic pressure, students have to worry about COVID safety and getting ready to travel home. One senior finds it a struggle at times to balance "my schoolwork and internships with self-care, financial stress and a dating relationship."
5. Doing the right thing. It’s true that some students have chosen to be cavalier about the pandemic and attend parties or large group gatherings. But there are also those who wear masks regularly and opt to stay quietly at home or in their dorm as much as possible. Most students find themselves in the middle of the spectrum, doing their best to follow rules that can seem a little hazy partly because they change so often.
"Half of the school is tested each week, and we have had no new cases in the last two weeks. I think the colleges where there are a ton of cases get more media attention, so people forget there are so many schools open that don’t have high numbers," said a student at Washington University in St. Louis.
Weirdly, there are some ways in which the pandemic has helped students, at least academically. One student finds prerecorded lectures a boon when it's time to study for a test. "In many of my classes, I get confused early in the lecture and then have trouble keeping up with the rest of the material. However, when everything is recorded I can go back and understand the key concepts."
Even the dreaded quarantines have had their silver linings. "I've quarantined twice this semester… [and] those days that I was working completely from home, I was able to get my work done better and more calmly than when I had to go into classes on campus! I also impress myself each week with the amount of work I'm able to accomplish," noted a senior from Whitworth University.
Many students feel good about how they've handled the extra personal responsibility thrust on them by the public health crisis. "It has definitely been a huge responsibility to have to decide for myself how cautious I want to be, but ultimately I think that the decisions my roommates and I have made have allowed us to still have experiences and enjoy college to the best of our ability given the circumstances," a college junior said.
The best part for many students is recognizing the people they can count on for love and support:
Being organized: "I created an Excel Spreadsheet outlining the key projects in each class," said one student. "I was not able to include every assignment; however, I included the 2–3 largest deliverables for each class. I am hoping this will improve my time management skills heading into final exams and presentations."
Prioritizing self-care: The key for one student will be "Making sure I have time to get outside and do simple things that I love, even when things get stressful!" Another agreed: "I don't think I'll survive the rest of the term if I don't take at least a couple hours a day to do something that brings me genuine peace/happiness."
Many students found it easier to relax their strict isolation after returning to college, knowing they no longer posed danger to high-risk neighbors or family members. As a return home for the holidays approaches, they may be starting to worry more again.
Make sure to communicate with your student during this time! Help them formulate a plan of action for the remainder of their days and weeks on campus. Being open and honest about everyone’s expectations will help you all feel more comfortable, and alleviate some of your student’s anxiety so they can concentrate on the strong finish to the term that they need and deserve.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.