Although she didn’t realize it at first, Kaya Jokanovic said the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on her mental health.
While social distancing may be the most effective way of slowing the spread of COVID-19, experts say social isolation poses a serious health concern for students with mental health illnesses.
Jokanovic, a senior studying journalism, suffers from severe anxiety and mild depression. She has been struggling to maintain a regular routine since the disruption of the pandemic.
“This past year, I felt that I was improving mentally and taking steps to handle my inner struggles in a better way,” Jokanovic said. “So, having a self-realization that I was falling back into my old ways because of isolation really gave me a wake-up call.”
Jokanovic said she feels safe when she follows the government’s rules and precautions for people who are in public spaces. She said she gets agitated, however, when she sees people out in public not following the proper guidelines for social distancing.
“I wouldn’t say that after self-isolation I am back to square one, but I definitely took a few steps back,” Jokanovic said. “I lost motivation to stick to a healthy lifestyle. I was behind on my school work and kind of let everything go.”
David Lairmore, a psychology resident at Counseling and Psychological Services, or CPS, at Ohio University, said the demand for mental health services is definitely on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 is likely putting a strain on an already strained system,” Lairmore said in an email.
Lairmore said students with mental health concerns may have already experienced social isolation prior to COVID-19 but are likely to experience increased social isolation as a result of the pandemic.
“CPS has prepared quite quickly to help students during this epidemic through shifting our services to Telehealth,” Lairmore said in an email.
To continue providing counseling services to all OU students, CPS is now providing Telehealth services to all currently enrolled students. Students are able to choose between audio-phone therapy or video conferencing therapy.
Hannah Pridemore, a junior studying strategic communications, said being socially isolated has greatly affected her mental health.
“I find myself slipping into old patterns that I had in high school that I don’t do when I’m on my own,” Pridemore said in an email.
Pridemore is considered an essential employee, as she works at a retirement home. She says she’s concerned about going to the grocery store because she suffers from an autoimmune disease and asthma.
“If I get sick, my chances of survival are low and I could potentially bring (COVID-19) to the retirement home without knowing and that would be catastrophic,” Pridemore said in an email.
Lairmore said CPS is still experiencing a large number of students who are continuing to utilize counseling services during the pandemic, but the number of students seeking help from CPS for the first time has decreased since the Telehealth system was installed.
“This may be due to some students preferring in-person therapy over telemental health, students not being fully aware of the services still being offered, or due to students being able to connect with mental health providers in their hometowns,” Lairmore said.
Housing & Residence Life also has information for students available on its website, and Housing has worked to support students who are both on and off-campus, said Pete Trentacoste, the Executive Director of Housing & Residence Life.
"The Housing & Residence Life team is committed to supporting students regardless of whether they are currently living on campus or needed to move home abruptly due to COVID-19,” Trentacoste said. “Whether it be RAs holding virtual office hours or our central office team answering questions and concerns, our staff is ready to help and make referrals when appropriate."
Maggie Moreda, a senior studying nursing and prior resident assistant for Carr and Johnson halls, said some first-year students find the transition to living in the dorms difficult, but the university has many available resources to aid students in this change.
“Housing staff is also well educated on CPS resources and often have the information shared with residents in more ways than one,” Moreda said.
Every new resident assistant goes through a mental health and suicide awareness training called “Bobcats Who Care.” Moreda said the training is thorough and always provides RAs with sufficient handouts to refer back to on their own time.
“Mental health isn’t something we talk about once and forget,” Moreda said. “It is worked into other parts of training and is brought up often.”
Resident Assistants are trained to ask questions and access the situation if they become aware of a student who is struggling or in a potential mental health crisis. If the student is not in danger, they are strongly encouraged to speak to CPS.
Moreda said RAs are required to notify their supervisor and complete a form with the Student Review and Consultation Committee so that the university can conduct a formal follow-up appointment with the resident.
“It’s important to remember that it’s everyone’s job to look out for each other, not just Housing staff,” Moreda said.
If an RA becomes aware of a resident who is actively suicidal, they must contact their supervisors and the Ohio University Police Department. OUPD will then make an initial assessment and communicate with the resident about their immediate needs.
“If individuals need immediate mental health support, that is something that needs to come from mental health professionals,” Moreda said. “While RAs are trained, we are also students not professionals.”
Michelle Pride, Ph.D., is the embedded clinician for athletics at OU. She is still providing mental health services for student-athletes remotely through the university’s Telehealth system.
Pride said while social isolation can definitely exacerbate symptoms of existing mental health issues, it is important to note that most people are not entirely isolated from one another. Instead, they are socially distancing under the state’s stay-at-home order, which has closed non-essential businesses and limited travel.
“This is an important distinction because people who are sheltering in place still have access to phones and computers, which can allow them to connect with their social support communities and mental health resources,” Pride said.
She said while people are social distancing, it is important to develop creative ways to connect with one another emotionally. Students are still able to socialize with one another by using text and social media platforms, sharing music, exercising over FaceTime or Zoom and speaking with family and friends on the phone.
“It is not the same as being able to sit with someone in the same room, and yet, we can still remain connected, show our care and concern and foster and develop our relationships with people,” Pride said.
Pride said social distancing is especially tough for student-athletes who are accustomed to being a part of a team environment every day.
“This team membership may give meaning to the student-athlete’s schedule and daily activities. It may be harder to find motivation to exercise (or) practice when you don’t have your team to provide encouragement and support,” Pride said.
While social distancing continues, students should consider ways to help them maintain a healthy mental outlook during the pandemic.
Pridemore said she enjoys playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, doing face masks and reading as part of her self-care routine while she is social distancing.
Lairmore suggests students seek the appropriate resources, avoid excessive exposure to media, practice self care strategies and reach out to others for support.
Jokanovic said her self-care routine involves writing in her journal, hiking and exercising outside and connecting with friends and family.
“Also, when I go on social media, I try to focus on the positive posts rather than the negative ones,” Jokanovic said. “Seeing other people’s stories and spreading positivity brings light to a negative situation.”
Pride suggests a number of techniques including practicing mindful breathing, staying on a regular sleep schedule and identifying three things you are grateful for.
“Be as supportive as possible to one another,” Lairmore said. “We will get through this together.”
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or in Ohio, text “4HOPE”. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the Lifeline Crisis Chat at www.crisischat.org.