Eat well, get enough rest, prioritize self-care and reach out for help. This is standard mental health advice for incoming post-secondary students. In many ways, the COVID era has reinforced this advice. In others, it warrants its own.
Don’t wait for a crisis to find out what mental health supports are available at your school. Sarah Pennisi, director of Brock University’s Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre, recommends researching and reaching out to wellness centres on campus to get a sense of available services and how to access them before school even begins.
Darlene Heslop, director of the Campus Health and Wellness Centre at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., likens mental health issues to physical ones. Just as the body experiences symptoms in the 24 hours before a heart attack, there are often signs of impending mental health crises in the days and weeks before they happen.
“We should take a sort of inventory of how we’re doing every day so we don’t get to that point,” she says. “If you intervene earlier, you’re going to hopefully prevent that crisis.” Students should develop a routine and schedule self-care into their days, says Heslop; this can help keep mental health a priority throughout the year.
Communicate what’s working
Mental health support should be an ongoing dialogue between students and post-secondary service providers, says Pennisi. Students should communicate what is and isn’t working for them as they form lasting relationships around campus. “Once the counsellor knows what the student needs, they will be able to respond to it,” she says. “The number one thing is dialogue.”
Heslop encourages using Zoom and other video chat services only if they will “fill your cup” rather than leave you feeling depleted. If video chats are too draining, let your service providers know. Several campus wellness centres now offer phone or text-based counselling options.
Pennisi recounts a counsellor at Brock University trying to navigate virtual counselling for a student with Zoom fatigue. The counsellor and student eventually decided to go on separate walks, put headphones on and have their session over the phone.
“Mental health supports are really about helping people understand what’s going on and co-creating some strategies that get [you] one step closer to achieving whatever [you] want to achieve,” Pennisi says.
Acknowledge grief, adjust expectations
The term “disenfranchised grief” has cropped up in studies and articles throughout the pandemic. It’s a term often used when a pet or ex-spouse dies and refers to grief not eagerly acknowledged by society. Many students spend years working toward and dreaming of their first year in post-secondary. To feel a deep sadness or loss at the reality of remote education is “completely normal,” Heslop says.
The first step to acceptance is acknowledgment—of resentment, anger or other negative emotions, says Pennisi. “The more students are aware of their own expectations and values, the more equipped they will be in connecting with whatever will make [the post-secondary] experience what they expect and want,” she says.
As schools shifted online, so did many post-secondary clubs, initiatives and opportunities. Virtually or socially distanced, Pennisi says building healthy relationships on campus and connecting with the right people is key to a fulfilling experience.
With isolation and lockdowns can come feelings of helplessness. And with comfort food perpetually nearby, many are returning to in-person activities in slightly different bodies. In a study from Dalhousie University, almost three-quarters of participants reported pandemic-induced changes to eating habits, and almost 60 per cent reported unwanted weight changes.
As schools slowly reopen, try to find solace in the shared discomfort of “an anomaly year,” Pennisi says. “Understand that most of us will be feeling, in some way, that discomfort and distress.”
“Whatever you’ve done in this past year to survive is a good thing,” Heslop says. “I am so proud of all of us for surviving a global pandemic.”
Students should know they’re not alone, she adds, and see the value in asking for help. “In the meantime, let’s just do what we need to do to get mentally well, because that’s going to help you thrive in your life.”