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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Staying mentally healthy during a global pandemic

A sign urges students to take care this term
A sign on the outside of Beta stack one, which Western planned to use as a space to quarantine sick students. // Photo by Kiana Doyle

Why students need to be taking care of their mental health now more than ever

By Kiana Doyle

Now may be an especially important time for students to take care of their mental health, but it still can be difficult to make an effort to integrate mental health practices into a daily routine. 

Matt Cavanaugh, a counselor at New Moon Counseling in Bellingham, points out how this global pandemic is really the first global traumatic experience that this generation of college students are facing.

“When we’re all undergoing what realistically is a pretty traumatic event, it’s very important to be cultivating awareness of what your mental health is actually doing and finding ways to really intentionally de-stress and relax,” Cavanaugh said.

Maisie Gould, a third-year student at Western currently taking online classes, said the combination of staying inside all the time and being away from the college environment has taken a little bit of a toll on her mental health, but that she has used her free time to do things she enjoys, like writing and walking her dogs. 

“For me, it helps to do a lot of the things that I love,” Gould said. “And talking to friends, even if you can’t see them.” 

While basic and widely known mental health practices can be getting enough sleep, drinking enough water or getting a little bit of exercise, many students may struggle with setting aside time to follow these suggestions to help their mental health, Cavanaugh said.

“There can be a sense of disbelief that something so theoretically simple will actually have any impact,” Cavanaugh said. 

He suggests starting small with basic mindfulness techniques for students to practice throughout a daily routine.

Cavanaugh defines a mindfulness practice as “simply the practice of becoming aware of whatever the present moment is.”

The practice can be as simple as taking a moment every so often while sitting at a computer or desk to mentally check in with the body to see what sensations are there, such as neck or back stiffness, and to instinctively react with whatever the body wants to do, like rolling the neck and stretching, Cavanaugh said. 

We can hold emotion in our muscles, he said, so the release of the tension and discomfort in the body can, in turn, improve our mental state. 

Jeff King is a therapist and psychology professor at Western specializing in cross cultural studies. He emphasizes the number one thing for students to do right now to take care of their mental health is to be kind to themselves.  

King said it is more than natural to be experiencing heightened feelings of anxiety or depression, difficulty remembering things or a general lack of energy.

“It’s not just our minds, it’s our bodies that are reacting to not having a routine, not having that stability,” King said. “The body is using more of its resources to try to calm itself down and to create a sense of stability and so there’s not as much energy left for investing [in] yourself.”

He suggests responding to feelings of fear and uncertainty about how the mind and body are reacting to this experience with patience and gentle understanding above all, and to know that these feelings are temporary.

A tip for students is that reminiscing happy memories can also benefit mental state, King said. He suggests things like listening to music or looking at pictures associated with good times to get a sense of familiarity and stability during these uncertain times.  

King recommends students look at this experience as a time for growth in their mental health.

For the main things to focus on in these uncertain times, he suggests, “giving priority to self-care, extending compassion to yourself, and if there’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, even some PTSD, to be kind to yourself.”

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