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College Students and Mental Health: Part 3, What Parents Can DoRob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC
It was early March, and I recall one vivid phone call warning my son about what I felt would be an imminent campus closure. His university was planning to wait until spring break to send the kids home, but colleges were falling like dominoes and I had a hunch his school would shut down sooner rather than later.
Joe had started his college freshman journey as a spring admit, a full semester after his peers. His freshman year already cut in half on campus, no way it would be further truncated, right? Wrong. A mere eight weeks in, my son was sent home.
His dad and I scrambled to drive upstate and fling everything into boxes. A 10-hour round trip, this packing pitstop needed to be fast.
In the frenetic race against the clock, I paused for a quick pandemic pic of Joe standing forlorn in the middle of his ravaged dorm room. Photos and lights had already been ripped from the wall and only a few things remained. We carefully removed his name from his door, along with various decorations thoughtfully curated by the RA. Just like that, freshman year was over.
Certainly it would be better by summer.
Summer internships fizzled. My son, a hospitality major, started working for DoorDash to earn some money. Dashing, as the kids say, was one of the only things I would let him out of the house to do. Very stressful times.
Certainly it would be better by fall.
One by one, a college would publicize its decision and then a chain reaction followed with dozens of other schools announcing a similar approach. We held out hope that Joe’s school would be in person or hybrid to some extent. He'd already rented an off-campus apartment, so even if the plan was all online, he was going back to school.
Joe adjusted remarkably well to the new college normal: Daily COVID checks and twice weekly coronavirus testing, masks on everywhere on campus, social distance, hybrid learning. Somehow he even managed to make some new friends. Weather has been kind and my son has been able to enjoy hiking and outdoor dining. Joe is scheduled to come home from Thanksgiving until campus reopens in February.
Certainly it will be better by spring?
We all know the pandemic roller coaster and how it might not be “over” for quite some time. Broadway is still dark. We're waiting to hear when study abroad will be reinstated.
We are tired of wearing masks, tired of social distancing, tired of all that is heavy in 2020. We are more stressed, isolated and anxious than ever before — a happening known as pandemic fatigue.
How can we push through this pandemic fatigue and support good mental health for ourselves and our older kids? Below are five suggestions to help you cope with this very real phenomenon.
When your grown child returns home, remember that their desire for independence is still a real and necessary entity. It gets particularly COVID-complicated because any activities outside the home can have a real impact inside the home.
Set realistic boundaries for your children. Discuss what restrictions you need to keep your family as safe as possible. Despite some media reports suggesting otherwise, I believe that most young people are aware of the dangers of COVID-19 and want to protect themselves, their family and their friends.
In addition to Zoom and FaceTime, in-person socializing is key to boosting mental health — something harder in colder months. Perhaps your garage can be transformed into an inclement weather socialization space. And when I say transformed, I'm not talking Martha Stewart. For me, it meant cleaning out the mountains of recycling and a bit of reorganization to create a small socially distant gathering area. It's not fancy or particularly inviting. But as the rain falls outside, and the temperatures drop, my garage will be a refuge for me and my children to have some time with friends.
Friluftsliv is a Norwegian way of living recently highlighted in National Geographic as an antidote to pandemic fatigue. Stated simply it means go outside, no matter the weather.
Studies show that being in nature improves happiness and reduces stress, things we need now more than ever. Bundle up, grab an umbrella and take a walk or enjoy another outdoor activity. Every year I wrap my outdoor furniture to protect it from the elements. Not this year. My fire pit will be working overtime this winter.
There have been profound losses in 2020. You may be mourning the loss of a loved one. Job loss. Home displacement.
The list goes on.
Perhaps you will profoundly miss the big family Thanksgiving dinner, or the extended family and friends running around at your Chanukah or Christmas Eve gathering. Acknowledge the losses and think of ways to make this year’s pandemic holidays special. Start new traditions, or dust off some old ones. Is it time to break out that family stuffed cabbage recipe, the one that takes hours and meticulous wrapping skills? Snap a family selfie or arrange for a front porch family photo and send out those holiday cards — this year maybe include a handwritten note.
Even in the midst of all the chaos, it is important to take time for yourself. Maybe it’s a Zoom exercise class, or a mug of warm hot cocoa topped with whipped cream. Even a five-minute meditation can revive and renew. Show your kids you’re worth it, and encourage them to do the same.
This year has been tough for all of us. If you find yourself struggling, even with best efforts, please don’t be afraid to seek out mental health support in your area. The CDC has numerous mental health support options available here.
Combatting pandemic fatigue in healthy ways will help make you and your family stronger. When it is so hard to see a silver lining, remember — even small changes can make a big difference.
Photo courtesy of the author. Spending much-needed down time with her mother and sister combats pandemic fatigue!
It’s time to celebrate with the perfect gift for your new grad!