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A lot is going on in the world today. The news and response on social media can feel overwhelming. With the compounding stress of politics, the pandemic, war abroad, violence, and tragedies at home, it’s no wonder mental health is suffering in America and rampantly among college students. The question is, how do we cope with the mental exhaustion of life in our evolving new normal?
Watching the news or scrolling through social media exposes us to upsetting political developments, tragedies resulting from violence, accidents, and natural disasters that can compound distress. Whether we’ve been directly impacted by trauma or disaster or we empathize with those who have (vicarious trauma), those emotions can be hard to work through.
The compounding stress in America
Now in the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, the worldwide number of daily cases has been on the decline to its lowest levels in months. But now, U.S. infections are on the rise again. The stress of not knowing whether we’re at the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning of the pandemic is a significant source of anxiety. For some, it has led to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many cities and states no longer require face coverings, leaving people who prefer to wear masks wondering what to do and if one-way masking provides enough protection to feel safe. Also, people are trying to figure out how to interact in social spaces with others who may or may not be vaccinated. And, as many as 3 out of 10 people experience long COVID-19 symptoms after infection. These are just a few of the pandemic factors compounding stress health problems across the country.
Coupled with the shock of the war in Ukraine and its tragic consequences, COVID-19 and its many variants have caused people to react to one another differently than what their reactions may have been prior to 2020 — with heightened aggression and violence. The Washington Post reports that six months into 2022, there were over 250 mass shootings compared to 147 at the same time in 2020 and 106 in 2018.
As we look at the effect this poses on higher education, the overwhelming stress of tragic events can leave college students looking for ways to express discontent with the world where they live. For example, studies show a 135% increase in depression and 110% increase in anxiety from 2013 to now, resulting in a frightening rise in suicidal ideation over the past two years – over 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds say they’ve seriously considered suicide. The effects of discontent also result in social and emotional distress, vicarious trauma, extreme violence and hatred, fatigue and frustration, substance use disorder, and a host of other mental health conditions.
Given these compounding factors, how can you manage self-care when tragedy occurs?
Support students when they need it most
Managing self-care when tragedy occurs
In my experience in mental health and wellness, there are a few principles that students can follow for managing self-care when tragedy occurs.
1. Moderate your news intake
Screen time increases stress. So, you shouldn’t feel bad about taking a break from the news and social media. Unplugging is healthy. Too much news can worsen your fear response and increase stress. If you’re having trouble pulling away from screens, give yourself a limit of how many times per day you check media outlets.
2. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation help to reduce stress during difficult times, while enhancing mood and self-esteem. I suggest centering yourself by taking a short walk, sitting outside for five minutes, or being present in the space where you are. Take a few deep breaths and connect with your surroundings. What do you hear? What do you see? How many things can you touch and what do they feel like? This activity helps you be in the moment, putting space between what you see happening in the news or online and where you are now.
3. Connect with others
Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member. Maintain healthy relationships and build a strong support system. And if distress impacts activities of your daily life for several days or weeks, talk to a counselor or doctor. (You may also want to join a support group or contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national center hotline at 1-800-985-5990.)
Signs you might need extra mental health support
Serious warning signs of stress and mental illness can vary in severity and duration. Some signs to watch for include:
- Change in sleep habits such as insomnia, oversleeping, or tossing and turning
- Aches, pains, and headaches not attributed to other health conditions
- Anxiety and irritation that affect behavioral health
- Emotional ups and downs or feeling out of control
- Dissociating or withdrawing
- Appetite changes
- Inability to focus
- Inability to stop thinking about a particular trauma
If any of these symptoms negatively impact your life, it may indicate that you should seek out professional help for your mental health. If you can’t do the things you used to do — especially things that brought you joy, it’s probably time to get professional help. If you’re unable to function in your daily life, now is the time to talk to someone who can work through it with you.
If you’ve tried to reduce stress on your own but are still feeling overwhelmed, you aren’t alone. It’s imperative to seek support from mental health professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and primary care doctors. Psychiatrists may prescribe medication to help you cope with stress, anxiety, and other diagnoses. Meanwhile, psychologists, therapists, and counselors can provide relief with various forms of talk therapy. Holistic health practitioners can provide relief as well.
When to suggest professional help for others
Certain emotions or behaviors may signal it’s time to encourage a roommate, family member, friend, or loved one to seek professional help for their mental health. Here are a few things to watch for in those close to you:
- Uncontrollable crying
- Unable to stop talking about a particularly traumatic event
- Struggling to work or keep up with studies
- Unable to handle stress with normal coping strategies
- Difficulty maintaining a healthy appetite or experiencing significant weight loss
- Using drugs or alcohol to cope
- Engaging in risk-taking behaviors
- Unable to focus
- Lack of interest in activities that once brought enjoyment
- Panic attacks
- Mistrust of people they normally confided in
- Overwhelming sense of guilt and unworthiness
- Restlessness or agitation
- Anger and violent outbursts
If a roommate, friend, or family member talks about suicidal or homicidal thoughts, I strongly recommend you take those statements seriously and immediately call a professional for help.
Strategies for crisis support in higher education
As the mental health of college students has worsened, in many cases, access to on-campus services is harder to get. This in and of itself is a tragedy, and sadly, a preventable one – one which leaves the potential for struggling students to slip through the cracks in the event that trauma or tragedy occurs.
So, what can higher education do to prepare to support students during a crisis?
1. Prepare for tragedy
It’s critical that postvention planning be done in advance for likely traumatic events (e.g., natural disasters, active shooters, national and global tragedies, on-campus suicide, etc.). Plans should be specific enough to be useful, while flexible enough to apply to various circumstances. The ultimate goal is to prepare the community to know how to respond in the event of a tragedy. Postvention efforts should be reviewed regularly to examine the effectiveness of responses and explore issues that could have been handled better. This postvention guide created by a Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) Project is a helpful resource.
2. Create an emergency operation planning team
The emergency operations planning (EOP) team should include school personnel from various departments (e.g., administrators, educators, psychologists, nurses, facilities managers, transportation managers, food personnel, family services representatives). It should also include student and parent representatives, as well as individuals and organizations that serve the interests of students, staff, parents, racial minorities, and religious organizations. The team should be small enough to permit close collaboration with community partners, while also representing the school and its community. Together the EOP should develop systems and preparedness protocols for likely tragedies so the community knows how to respond both during and in the immediate aftermath of tragic events.
3. Make space for students to process after a tragedy
More than anything, students will need to talk after a tragedy, and also during a difficult ongoing event (e.g., COVID-19, war in Ukraine). They’ll need peer support, as well as faculty, staff, and college administrators to listen empathically as they express their feelings and concerns.
For more initiatives higher education can use to support students during a crisis, watch the panel discussion on Gen Ztressed: Student Mental Health in the New Now. Hear from higher education experts from Vector Solutions, The Claremont Colleges, The Healthy Minds Network, and The Jed Foundation (JED) on how to create a college campus environment that promotes mental well-being, and can help students navigate the compounding stress of the pandemic, war abroad, violence, and more.
The role of 24/7 care during a tragedy
The bottom line is that as humans, we all need support. And while not everyone has used a service like TimelyCare, it’s good to know there is professional help available if needed. In those times when we deal with a tragedy so horrific that it can spiral us into darkness and depression, it’s encouraging to know there’s another human available for support 24/7/365.
When colleges use a technology platform like TimelyCare to ensure continuity of care, it creates a campus culture that enables students to access care efficiently — especially during times of prolonged tragedy, when patient volume and visits are higher. A fully integrated telehealth or virtual health care solution helps students meet their care needs around the clock and more quickly than traditional care facilities can provide. At TimelyCare, our virtual health and well-being platform provides on-demand emotional support, scheduled counseling, and psychiatry (by referral) to support student mental health. And that means peace of mind for campus administrators, health care professionals, students, and their families.
Contact us to learn how an integrated healthcare solution with telehealth can support your students’ health, academic success, and personal well-being during times of tragedy.