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The Unique Mental Health Challenges of COVID-19

Bruce Robertson is a licensed clinical psychologist who oversees Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) and Career & Professional Development. Here, in his role as head of CAPS, he talks with us about the mental health challenges unique to the coronavirus pandemic – and what we all can do to stay positive and healthy.

Q: Tell us what you know about COVID-19 and its effect on mental health.
A: COVID has exaggerated or exacerbated whatever has been going on in someone’s life. So if you had anxiety, now you have more anxiety. If you had uncertainty about some relationships, now you have more uncertainty. COVID has also put a barrier right in the middle of what we’re often trying to do in the mental health world, which is to help people connect with other people, to socialize and improve relationships, and to have better communication. But how do you improve your communication or meet new people or take risks when everything in the world is saying to be wary, stay at home, keep your distance and don’t do things that will challenge your typical way of doing life?

Q: What about COVID and college students in particular?
A: Young people are just starting to take steps into independence and learning how to make decisions on their own, and COVID has put a barrier in that developmental process. It’s difficult just growing up, and now you add this piece to it. Some students say, “I just want to be a typical teenager, and you won’t let me do that. We just want to gather, have fun and enjoy being together.” They’re pushing for independence. Others were fearful [about independence] and now are more afraid. So whatever you’re seeing, you’re seeing more of it.

Q: What can students do to ensure more positive mental health?
A: First, all of those basic things we talk about whether there’s a pandemic or not: exercise, eat well, get good sleep. The college has some great mindfulness tools that students can quickly access on their phone or computer that can ground them. And, of course, we have counseling available. What’s surprised the mental health community is that online counseling, or telehealth, really works quite well. There are some barriers to it, but I’ve found that after a small amount of time talking online, it goes well.

Q: Are students having online counseling sessions in their rooms?
A: No. For confidentiality and privacy, we set up rooms across campus where students can go with their laptop and have their remote session there. Students really like them.

Q: What are some other mental health services available at SNC?
A: We have group counseling, which we’re also doing remotely. We have groups focused on anxiety, for example, and another just for females. We also have short-term groups – three sessions – that focus on the main issues students have: anxiety and stress, conflict resolution, and mindfulness practices. They’re very short and to the point; three sessions in one week, with some homework. Afterward, we can make a decision with them if they want to continue with individual counseling or not. Often we’re finding that getting this information, voicing their concerns and discovering the resources available is all they need to go forward. St. Norbert also offers some online resources, and this fall we started regular weekly mindfulness practices and outdoor yoga in front of the Campus Center.

Q: Anything parents should watch out for when communicating with their student?
A: If you’re noticing some slight shifts in the way your student is interacting, that could be a sign something is going on. So if your student is more negative, or more short with you, or not having the same motivation or interest in things they used to enjoy, those are some signs. But parents also have to check themselves. What are you stressed about? Are you worried or anxious? Much of what goes on with you will transfer over to your student.

And you need to stay in reality. That’s really critical. The reality is that this is what we’re facing right now. Don’t make it bigger than it is or less than it is, but stay in reality. We’re telling the students, “Here are the rules, here are the procedures, please follow them.” Don’t fight it or pretend it’s not there, but don’t blow it out of proportion, either. Stay focused, stay in reality and ask questions as they come up. Because without answers to your questions, that’s when stress occurs.

Q: Are more students seeking mental health services since COVID?
A: That’s an interesting issue. Looking at schools across the country, many say their numbers are down, but they’re down because students are uncomfortable with the idea of telehealth. They’re uncomfortable with the process and unfamiliar with it, and that adds more stress. But as this becomes the new norm, we’re expecting the numbers will go back up and continue to go up.

Since this interview was conducted, Robertson reports the number of students using CAPS has risen, but is still 10 to 15 percent below last year’s rate at this time. Robertson says: We are guessing that students with higher mental health concerns are spending more time at home and therefore getting support at home rather than reaching out to CAPS. The sense is that CAPS is being used to address immediate concerns rather than larger, global concerns. One student summarized it by saying, “I just want to get through this semester, and then I can begin thinking about the future.”

Q: It’s surprising that students raised with technology would find telehealth uncomfortable.
A: We’re finding students really want to talk in person. They want a sense of a real relationship. Students want to be on campus. Students want to be social. Students want to deal with issues face-to-face. With social media and all of the opportunities available to stay away from people, we’re finding COVID almost pushed it over the top. Students are saying, “I don’t want to go that far!” It’s been really interesting. Once social interaction was completely taken away, students are pushing back and fighting for it.

Q: Any final thoughts or advice?
A: We all need to stay aware, stay focused, ask questions and, if there’s uncertainty, recognize everybody is in this together. If there’s an opportunity in this pandemic, it’s to realize we’re all in this together and to support one another. Whether that’s helping someone who’s worried or stressed, or walking with someone to get lunch because you see they’re alone, if we all support one another, we’ll stay in community with one another. And these are times when community means so much more than anything else.

Nov. 17, 2020