In the following article, Office of Sustainability student interns Norma Behrend-Martinez and Savannah Holt offer a three-part exploration of mental health during the pandemic, including personal stories, interviews with fellow students at UW–Madison, and a compilation of resources. For comprehensive information on the university’s pandemic response, please visit UW–Madison’s COVID-19 web page.
Part 1: Why Are We Covering This?
As a college student, it was already hard enough juggling classes, work, and my mental health before the pandemic hit. Even though I have a family history of mental health issues, I was surprised when I got my first panic attack during my first year of college. Several stressful doctor visits later, I was diagnosed with general anxiety. It took me most of sophomore year to get back to a healthy mindset by getting in touch with a therapist, starting to take medication, and implementing behavioral changes. During that time, I looked at all my peers with envy; they seemed to be thriving in their new internships and growing their social networks with ease . They appeared to be excelling in life while I was stuck re-learning how to breathe, relax, and generally take care of myself.
Back then I wouldn’t have shared my story, but the more I talk to people about mental health, the more I realize that I am not alone in my experiences. And current issues like COVID-19, the contentious 2020 presidential election, and heightened racial tensions are only making these experiences more severe. Personally, my anxiety is often worsened by episodes of hypochondria, so this pandemic has made it really easy for me to spiral into endless worry about possibly becoming infected with COVID-19. Last spring, I had nights where I would constantly check my temperature, think about all the people I saw in the grocery store and wonder if they infected me, or worse, if I infected them!
Everyone’s journey with mental health looks different. Recognizing that my emotions are still valid even if they are different from others is difficult for me. I find it hard to allow myself to not be okay. This has been especially difficult through the pandemic as it’s easy to push aside my mental health difficulties because they seem insignificant compared to what others go through on a daily basis. I need to constantly remind myself that no one wins when comparing who is more “worthy” of feeling stressed or down. Instead, for me, it’s about recognizing that everyone is facing their own unique challenges, and it’s better to focus my energy on being more compassionate, both to others and myself.
Another aspect of my mental health in relation to COVID-19 and being a college student is feeling alone. Something I don’t think people talk enough about is how lonely an experience college can be. Before COVID-19, I often found myself considering the number of close friends I had compared to other college students and feeling left out. In some ways, the pandemic made these feelings of loneliness worse for me. There weren’t a lot of people I felt I could text or be honest with. On the other hand, the beginning of the pandemic allowed me to step back and focus on taking care of myself. I started reading for pleasure again and put a greater emphasis on strengthening my personal relationships.
Due to our experiences, we wanted to take a deep dive into how recent events have affected UW–Madison students. We also want to recommend ways to combat anxiety and depression with strategies that have either personally worked for us or that mental health experts recommend. Whether by confirming you are not alone or by providing you with useful wellness tricks, we hope this guide helps you.
Part 2: Learning from Experiences of UW–Madison Students
Below is a combination of two separate interviews. Norma conducted an interview with Hannah Kasun, a fifth year student majoring in environmental studies and music performance, about the impact of COVID-19 on her mental health. Norma also conducted an interview with John Kappler, a junior majoring in History, Spanish, and International Studies about his experience with social anxiety.
Norma: What has been your experience with mental health?
John: I found that early on I had anxiety, specifically social anxiety and performance anxiety. So I had to deal with understanding my own mental health pretty early on. Whereas I think some people don’t deal with those kinds of issues until maybe high school or even later. But currently, I’d say my mental health is pretty good because I’ve come to accept some of my shortcomings, and I understand better how to work with myself. And during COVID, I’ve been able to be more comfortable in my surroundings. Doing my school stuff at home has been good for me. And I haven’t had to be out as much, which is something that does give me anxiety. So overall, there have been some rough patches in my life in middle school or high school, even in college, maybe I guess in the last couple years. But right now, it’s a pretty good situation.
Norma: What did people tell you about mental health during your childhood?
John: I don’t think I got a lot of guidance about mental health during my childhood. Probably the most I got was from my mom who also suffers from anxiety, and she would always empathize with me. When I would talk about having to do a presentation at school, or a speech, something like that. Because she remembered always hating that kind of thing when she was in school, too, and it caused her to have debilitating anxiety. So, mostly from her. I didn’t really get any tips from anybody else in my life. My dad never was wanting to talk about mental health, because he doesn’t really deal with any mental health problems. And I don’t think there was really a large push in schools until maybe when we were in high school.
Norma: Hannah, how did you deal with mental health before COVID-19?
Hannah: Seeing friends more. It’s great to have stuff that takes your mind off of school and political situations. And just doing a game night get-together. It does wonders for just how you feel like and to get rid of the stress of a week of school. Going out into places in nature is always so helpful. And obviously that’s a little more restricted now as well, there’s places I can bike to and walk to. But I’m not so much reaching out to friends who would have cars that we could drive somewhere and go to, like, state parks or anything of that nature.
Norma: How have the various events in 2020 really changed your state of mental health?
Hannah: Okay, let me go back to March 2020 with COVID. That was very difficult for a number of reasons, one of them being that many things got canceled that would have been really important. As a music major, all these concerts were canceled. I was supposed to give a recital. You had all this like culminating end of the year stuff we didn’t get to do. We lost the opportunity to have rehearsals and meetings with our professors.
And then, the fact that everything just jumped online so suddenly. And no one was prepared for it. Watching six hours of classes that was just your professor talking over a PowerPoint. It was just so difficult to stay motivated and to stay on top of things. There was a while when I was doing well and there was a while where I would just miss multiple things. And then I’d freak out and like get back on track, and then it would happen again. And I think people just weren’t prepared for it at all.
And it’s very difficult when the weather’s not nice. Because being stuck inside. There were a lot of long walks I went on, but it was March and it was cold and rainy. And it’s just so difficult to do that. At that point, you really couldn’t visit your family, everyone was just really scared because we didn’t know how bad everything was. Obviously some things have improved with the fact we have more information.
Norma: John, how have you been dealing with COVID-19 and quarantine from a mental perspective?
John: Quarantine has helped me mentally. Because I feel more secure when I’m at home or in my own space, and I’ve pretty much been in my own space almost all the time during this quarantine. So I’ve been able to kind of consolidate my thoughts, and just spend time with my thoughts, myself, my girlfriend, and our puppy.
So, I haven’t had to really deal with a lot of things that I don’t like, like crowds, or being around a lot of loud people, which is kind of avoidance I guess. But I don’t really care because I don’t want to have to deal with that. And COVID has been a really good catalyst for not having to do things like go out and about. I guess extroverts suffer from that but for me it’s generally been a positive thing in my day to day life. Not that it’s been a positive thing for the world, of course, but for me, I’ve noticed, probably a higher level of happiness.
Norma: Hannah, how have you been dealing with COVID-19 and quarantine from a mental perspective?
Hannah: I’ve been trying to get outside. The weather’s still kinda nice now, so I like going on runs. That really resets myself mentally and helps get rid of this physical tension that I get from just like sitting at a desk for so long.
It seems a little cliché, but talking to friends and family, virtually. Trying to be smart and then have visits. Just seeing my parents. I think there’s a little bit of solidarity in people being in this situation with you. And it’s a little difficult because obviously some people aren’t following all the same guidelines and respecting the risk for other people’s health. But it’s very important to talk to friends and family who are following those same rules and having those understandings. And just encouraging each other to continue on doing that so we can be as safe as possible for everybody.
Norma: Do you try to give your day some structure?
Hannah: I wish I was better at giving my day structure. It’s very difficult. I have some class stuff that does help keep it in schedule. A lot of times, work meetings keep things scheduled. But I wish I did more premeditation about what my day is going to look like and what I need to do. But I think that’s always kind of an unrealistic expectation. I have one friend who does that consistently and I don’t know anyone else who does it. So, yeah, I think in that manner we all want to do better, but we’re all kind of struggling a little.
Norma: John, what has been the impact of online classes on your mental health?
John: I think it’s been positive, mostly because I can do all my work from a place I’m really comfortable in. I guess it’s been a little more difficult. With the amount of work given out because professors have probably been given the belief that students have more time now. So they’ve been giving out more work for the same amount of credits, which can be difficult for people I know. And it was difficult for me for a stretch of time, but I think I’ve adapted to the pace that professors have taken on. So everything’s going pretty well now.
I found that online school for me is not a bad thing at all, because I’ve already done online classes. Everybody has, at this point, but I did four classes in the summer. So, I was pretty well prepared for this kind of thing. Whereas other people, I think, are still affected adversely by it. A lot of people don’t want to do classes where they don’t see anybody or go somewhere, but I never really had that problem. I don’t really want to go anywhere, and I don’t really care to see anybody strangers, that I don’t know. So, I’ve been fine.
Norma: Hannah, has life in quarantine taught you anything about yourself?
Hannah: I found that it’s more rewarding to try and make a little bit of quiet to just journal or be with yourself. Rather than constantly consuming media or constantly being on a device or having other bits of entertainment or news just constantly being bombarded at you. Because I think we get that so constantly. And I think it helps to really try and ground yourself. Now more than ever.
Norma: John, is there anything else you’d like to share?
John: I think it takes a lot of meditation, talking to oneself. I don’t think you can solve all your problems through external means, like talking to a therapist or family member. I think it takes a lot of introspection, and a lot of time just sitting, thinking through your fears and goals and wants.
I think in our society that people expect fast results, but good mental health isn’t something that will come to you instantly. You won’t be gratified quickly. If you have problems you might suffer for a while and that’s inevitable but pain is a part of life.
Part 3: What Can You Do?
Below is a list of different behavioral changes that you can explore in order to deal with mental health challenges.
- Create a routine
In a time of mostly online classes, you may not have a solid routine. Sticking to a schedule may significantly improve your mental state by giving your life more stability during these unstable times. Small routines or habits are also a good way to structure your day. Try making tea in the morning or reading one chapter of a book before going to bed. To learn more about how to implement tiny habits, check out these video guides from Dr. BJ Fogg and his team of behavioral scientists.
- Schedule time for yourself
Speaking of scheduling, try to schedule a block of time in your day for “Me Time” just as you would for a class meeting or a study session with your peers. Isn’t your mental health as important as your classes, since without the former you might struggle with the latter? Whatever you do that makes you happy (cooking, taking a bath, etc.), make sure to cherish this part of the day!
- Get outside (while staying safe)
Several studies suggest that being connected to nature, whether it’s seeing a tree outside your window or walking to Picnic Point, has positive impacts on your overall well-being. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, the Danish Civil Registration System “found that citizens who grew up with the least green space nearby had as much as a 55 percent increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse in later years.” Unfortunately, not everyone has equal access to green spaces due to unjust city planning and socioeconomic factors. If you would like to learn more about the environmental injustice of public green spaces check out these articles from the Chicago Policy Review and Bloomberg.
- Get some exercise
According to University Health News Daily, a Duke University study found “that both medication and exercise were equally effective” against depression. A combination of cardio (for instance, going on a run) and strength training (for instance, doing push-ups) is proven to be better for your mental health than just doing one or the other according to the Sydney Morning Herald. (Understand that exercise won’t magically make mental health issues disappear, but it can lessen their severity. It is usually recommended to not only make behavioral changes, but also seek out therapy and medication if needed.) If you want some recommendations for free exercises videos you can do at home, look into Popsugar Fitness and Yoga with Adriene.
Everyday you take countless unconscious breaths. Meditation requires that you focus on the present moment and each individual breath. For some people, the act of centering on the present can help to relieve stress and improve your mood. To learn more about the science behind meditation (and how it can positively alter your brain!) read this article from the Harvard Gazette. To start implementing a meditation practice in your routine, consider Faith Hunter’s 30 day challenge.
- Take up journaling
Whether you write down what happened throughout your day or use writing to focus on your mood, journaling can help you to ground yourself and recognize triggers that impact your mental health. The University of Rochester recommends trying to write daily so that you can start to build a habit. Also, don’t worry about the structure of your journal (it’s only for you!) and instead focus on writing what’s important to you at the moment. Here’s a journal entry prompt to help get you started.
- Stay connected
Talking with friends, family, and loved ones is a great way to feel a sense of belonging. FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, and other video-chatting tools allow you to speak with people even if they’re far away. However, going for a walk with someone (while wearing masks!) is a nice way to get some screen-free time and de-stress. Mental health struggles can also feel isolating so it may help to talk with people you trust. Sometimes just telling someone about what you’re dealing with can lift a bit of the burden. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students at UW–Madison are also creating virtual spaces, such as @BIPOCatwisco on Instagram, to share their experiences with racism on campus. Listening to others’ experiences can help fight isolation and foster community.Note: we acknowledge that as white and white-passing students, we are not experts and therefore do not feel comfortable giving advice to students who are facing racial trauma and dealing with the mental health effects of racism and gaslighting. However, we do want to offer some resources:
– Podcasts: The Struggle Bus, Latinx Therapy, Therapy for Black Girls
– On Campus: BIPOC Coalition, MSC, Wisconsin Black Union, Resources to Support Our Black Community, DACA/Undocumented Student Support
- Take advantage of professional help
Often, behavioral changes alone will not fully treat your anxiety or depression. To consistently take care of your mental health, a combination of behavioral changes, therapy, and medication may be helpful. UHS is a great service, if you can get an appointment, since treatment is covered by your tuition. They are currently offering virtual appointments, though there may be delays as they serve the entire UW–Madison student body. Another resource connected to UHS is free access to SilverCloud, an online resource that provides interactive lessons on topics such as stress and resilience. Check out Mental Health America if you would like more information on dealing with mental health issues relating to COVID-19.