Special thanks to our friends at Kognito, a health simulation company serving higher education with solutions that build life skills for students, faculty, and staff, for collaborating on this post.
Three college students and mental health activists involved with Active Minds share what the last few months have been like, advice for their peers, and what they look forward to.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us! Tell our audience more about yourself.
Meera Varma: I’m a rising junior at UCLA, majoring in psychology. Active Minds is the first place at UCLA where I felt like I belonged, because I was constantly surrounded by like-minded individuals who were passionate about mental health, and the destigmatization and education of mental illness/psychiatric treatment. Active Minds is where I found my purpose and calling in life and ultimately where I dedicated my life to being a mental health activist. I served on the board at UCLA during my sophomore year and will have a position next year as well. During my freshman year, I had the honor to meet Alison Malmon, the founder of Active Minds during the 2018 Send Silence Packing tour, which solidified my dedication to mental health and activism.
Erinn Ossentjuk: I am a rising senior at the University of Maryland, majoring in Public Health Science and minoring in Sustainability. I currently work with Active Minds as a Development Intern.
Zoe Bock: I’m a rising junior at Davidson College. This summer, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to intern with the Active Minds National Office. Although the internship was supposed to be in D.C., I am now completing it remotely due to COVID-19. This internship is actually my first exposure to Active Minds, as my school does not have a chapter– I wish I knew about Active Minds sooner though because it is such a wonderful, important organization, and I’m loving my time here!
What was your experience like in the spring when your campus closed?
Meera: The decision for UCLA to close came very fast. I wasn’t mentally ready to move back home, and it didn’t feel like I had enough time to prepare. I remember feeling confused, nervous, and sad because my amazing life at UCLA was taken away. However, I am thankful that I did have a house to go home too, and tried to gain perspective on the situation and focus on the greater picture.
Erinn: When my campus closed in the spring, I was living on-campus and working as a Resident Assistant. I had to quickly pack up my belongings and shove them into my mother’s car in order to make it home before New York’s mandated quarantine. Once home, I engaged in online classes from my bedroom. The adjustment to online classes was not easy, but I managed by keeping a strict schedule and exploring new hobbies in my free time.
Zoe: Although I was fortunate to have a safe situation to return home to, it was definitely a hard adjustment for me. It took me a long time to process what was happening (and to be honest, I’m still processing it all). I was sad to leave my friends, dorm, activities, and campus in general, and I found it difficult to stay motivated to finish out the semester online. I felt like everything was moving around me and I was just floating through the days and the situation. While there were some silver-linings, like home-cooked meals and extra time with family, the transition definitely made me feel lonely and sad as time went on.
How do you think the COVID-19 situation is impacting student mental health right now?
Meera: I honestly think that it’s a “treat each day as it comes” situation. I personally have days where I can’t get out of bed, don’t eat anything, or can’t even bring myself to shower. This is valid! We are all experiencing what living through a pandemic is for the first time, and that’s important to keep in mind. This is a new way of life we are all getting used to – there will be good mental health days and bad mental health days. It’s okay.
Erinn: COVID-19’s fallout is impacting student mental health in a number of ways. First, students are isolated from friends and community, causing many to feel lonely, anxious, upset, among many other emotions. Second, many students do not know what the future will look like – this school year and beyond – causing distress and anxiety. Third, many students are not in the best working or learning environment, causing many to feel unproductive.
This is not an exhaustive list because the COVID-19 situation affects each student differently, but these are the ways I have seen COVID-19 affect student mental health in my life.
Zoe: I think that COVID-19 is causing a myriad of negative mental health effects for students. On an academic level, students might not have access to the learning support that they need or the proper home environment to complete their work to the best of their ability which could increase stress levels and exacerbate preexisting mental health conditions. I also think that this prolonged social isolation is causing an increase in social anxiety– multiple of my friends and I have commented that we feel like we don’t know how to interact with other people anymore, especially in a small talk/more impersonal setting. Additionally, the general unknown of the pandemic and the mass information shared about it every day is overwhelming, stressful, and depressing. College students in particular may have also returned to a home situation (i.e. living with parents and potentially multiple siblings again) from which they had been far removed, and, for some, that could involve a feeling of regression and unfamiliar dependency which could also negatively affect their mental health.
How have you been supporting your peers during this time? How have they been supporting you?
Meera: In the beginning, it was difficult to keep in touch with friends because so much was changing all at once. We went from seeing and hanging out with each other every day in person, to not being allowed to see or even hug them. I’ve been trying my best to text/call my friends and check up on them every now and then. They’ve been doing the same.
Erinn: I support my friends by texting them and asking how they are feeling, how quarantining is impacting them, and how I can help. I try to text them frequently while giving them my full time and attention. My friends support me by checking in on me and staying engaged with me through FaceTime.
Zoe: I have to say– it takes a conscious effort to support my peers at this time. Texts messages to check in, say “I miss you”, and ask “How are you doing?” are key ways I’ve been supporting my peers. I would say my peers have been doing the same for me. Wearing a mask, social distancing, and following CDC recommendations are also key ways to support your peers at this time!
How is your school stepping up to address student mental health and wellness? What could they do better?
Meera: UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) was open during spring quarter for unlimited online therapy/counseling sessions for students. I think this is simply amazing, and I hope they continue to do this in the summer and fall as well!
It would be great to see more webinars/panels where students can ask mental health professionals about how to take care of their mental health during this time. This would definitely help students in feeling like they’re not alone.
Erinn: My school just welcomed a new president that has emphasized student mental health as a priority. In order to prioritize mental health, our new president has pledged to increase staffing for mental health services and increase financial support for students. These sound like great initiatives, but I am eager to see if they effectively play out on campus. I hope my campus steps up this semester by encouraging students to take mental health days and ensuring that professors respect and value student mental health.
Zoe: I have learned personally how connected mental and physical health are. I’m happy that my school is brainstorming ways that we can have some PE and wellness classes outdoors, in a socially-distanced fashion, and/or recorded to be streamed virtually. Counselors are also offering some teletherapy options, and I hope that continues in the fall. The counseling center has also committed to offering new programming in the fall to specifically support BIPOC students. This acknowledgment of and response to the adverse mental health effects of systemic racism is a good start, but I hope that the school goes much further to support the mental health of BIPOC students on campus. I also think that Davidson could do a much better job of openly speaking about mental health and making mental health and wellness resources more accessible and at the forefront of school communication.
What advice do you have for students to take care of themselves right now?
Meera: Your feelings are valid. It’s okay to not be okay. Start small, and work your way up; don’t judge yourself. Your worth is NOT measured by your productivity! Take it as each day comes, we will get through this together. You’re not alone!
Erinn: I encourage students to make their personal well-being a priority. Whether this means taking fewer credits this semester, cutting back hours at work, or scheduling self-care time, students must put themselves first in order to be healthy and successful.
Zoe: Try to do something for yourself at least once a day, even if it’s small (ex. watch a show, eat something yummy, take a bath, meditate, go to bed early, walk around the block, watch a funny TikTok, etc.). If you can, get outside in a safe way! Actively seeking fresh air and movement has been so important for me during the past few months. Limit your social media time, and mute or unfollow certain people or accounts on social media if needed. Reach out to your friends! They want to hear from you. Remember that it’s okay to be struggling.
What are you hopeful for when you and your classmates return to campus?
Meera: I’m hopeful there is a vaccine.
Erinn: I hope professors better accommodate and respect students’ needs when we return to campus. I hope students respect COVID-19 restrictions and the health of their fellow classmates. And I hope to have a healthy and successful semester.
Zoe: I’m hoping that my classmates will understand the gravity of this pandemic (especially for the BIPOC community and immunocompromised individuals!) and follow health and safety measures to the best of their ability. I’m hopeful (note the difference) that the many organizations, clubs, and offices on campus will create meaningful and innovative ways for us all to connect, regardless of what our physical proximity might look like.
If you are looking for student mental health resources for your campus, check out our new guide, Recommendations for Prioritizing Student Mental Health and Campus-wide Healing and Recovery during COVID-19.