Covid-19 and Graduate Student Mental Health

Written by Sierra Maniates, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School

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The Graduate School and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) will be putting on a workshop on March 8, 2022 from 11:30-1pm. This workshop will  explore the continued impacts of COVID-19 on graduate student mental health, and ways of mitigating and coping with those impacts.  The workshop will be facilitated by CAPS Clinical Counselors Monica Gray, Amy Blankenship, and Javier Robledo Rivera. You can register for the workshop now.

The COVID-19 Pandemic came hand-in-hand with a public health crisis of its own: a mental health crisis. This has been especially true for teens and young adults—including many graduate students. Almost all young people have faced a range of major academic, employment-related, and social disruptions, and a lingering sense of being in limbo during a pivotal and often fast-paced life stage.  

It's no surprise then that this population has seen skyrocketing rates of mental health issues in the last two years. A study conducted on graduate students at 9 research universities showed that rates of anxiety disorders have risen by 50% among graduate students, and rates of depression have doubled since 2019. These rises were particularly drastic in low income, racial and ethnic minority, and LGBTQ+, students. 

As the Spring semester begins virtually in the wake of the Omicron variant, these issues may be exacerbated for many graduate students. While many graduate students may be less locked down and isolated than they were at the beginning of the pandemic, many are still feeling the effects of COVID on their mental health. Whether it be the illness anxiety and sense of foreboding inherent to an ongoing and constantly changing crisis, grief at the loss of loved ones, ongoing isolation from peer and mentor support, increased financial insecurity, or even just changes in routine, the effects of COVID are still with most of us.  

While ways of addressing these mental health related impacts will be explored in more depth during the workshop, below you will find a brief introduction to ways of recognizing and dealing with COVID related or exacerbated mental health issues you or people you know may be experiencing.  

Identify what is Happening

Some signs of worsening mental health issues are well known. We are used to anxiety showing up as constant worrying or panic, and depression as sadness and oversleeping. These mental health issues and others though, can show up in other ways that are often overlooked. Make sure to look out for the following signs in yourself and others, as these can be signs of worsening mental health. 

  • Constant fatigue  
  • Physical pain or other physical health issues 

  • Perfectionism and overcontrolling 

  • Lack of emotion 

  • Patterns of avoidance (including new or worsening procrastination)  

  • Difficulties with decision making  

And always make sure to look out for other more known signs of mental illness as well, such as changes in sleeping, eating, sexual, or hygiene habits, excessive emotional and mood changes, chronic worrying or fear, increased substance use or abuse, suicidal thoughts, or inability to carry out daily activities. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it's especially important to reach out to a professional or a resource such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. 

If you do realize you or someone you know is experiencing signs of mental illness, it's important to try and approach those signs without judgement. Mental illness is stigmatized, and so it can be easy to blame yourself if you are experiencing these symptoms. Mental health issues, though, are as real and common as physical health issues. Affirm this when with those who are experiencing mental health issues, and if you are experiencing them, surround yourself with people who believe in, and support mental health.  

It also can be useful to remind yourself that we are living through a very real, very difficult point in time, and it's normal that that would take its toll. When living through extreme situations, it is often unrealistic to expect your mental health to remain perfect throughout. You deserve the time and resources to take care of your mental health.  

Utilize Positive Coping Mechanisms

"Coping" is the process of mastering, minimizing, or tolerating stress or personal/interpersonal problems. In the case of mental health issues, coping mechanisms are behaviors or thought-processes that can be used to manage the stress that may be contributing to mental health issues, or manage or deal with the symptoms of mental health issues themselves.  

While all coping mechanisms serve a purpose, and none are to be ashamed of, some coping mechanisms are healthier or more effective in the long term than others. For instance, substance use, avoiding others, or self-harm may help a person cope in the moment, but may cause more harm than good in the long run. If you notice yourself engaging in negative coping mechanisms, it's important to recognize that they are nothing to be ashamed of—it's a good thing that you are trying to cope— and then seek help finding more positive coping mechanisms to replace them. If these negative coping mechanisms are particularly dangerous (such as self-harm), it's especially important to seek professional help.  

Positive coping mechanisms are strategies that manage mental health issues without negative long-term repercussions. Positive coping mechanisms are usually "problem-focused" or "emotion-focused". Problem-focused coping mechanisms work to lessen the problem at hand. This could include seeking out therapy, asking for an extension from a professor, or maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. Emotion-focused positive coping mechanisms help address the emotions that may be caused by mental health issues. These could include strategies like opening up to a friend, trying to do something you enjoy, using a grounding exercise, or practicing acceptance/externalization over self-blame. It's generally good to use a balance of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping, so take note if you tend towards one at the expense of the other. Coping looks different for everyone, and it's easy to get frustrated as you figure out what works for you. Reaching out to professionals, or supportive people in your life can help during this process.  

Reach out to Resources

Mental illness can feel isolating, but there are resources on and off campus available. These are only a few of the many on and off campus resources, but they are a good place to start for yourself, or to give to a friend.  

UC Reach Out App-The Reach Out App is a UC/Cincinnati specific mobile app that takes some of the work out of finding help. It has sections for helping yourself, helping a friend, and tailored local and national emergency contacts. If you're struggling with mental health issues, locating and contacting help can feel like an insurmountable task. This app makes it a little easier; You only need to click a few buttons to be connecting to an emergency, or non-emergency resource. If you don't see a resource on this list that fits your needs, check out the Reach App for a more comprehensive list.  

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)-CAPS provides a variety of mental health related services to the UC community. They have individual therapy, group therapy, and crisis support available for no or low cost to students. It is often possible to speak to a counselor same or next day in crisis situations.  CAPS also runs a 24/7 hotline for students who may be experiencing a mental health crisis after hours. CAPS is primarily set up for short term counseling, but can help students find long term therapy solutions if necessary. 

UC Graduate Student Peer Support Group-The Graduate Student Peer Support group is a group facilitated by graduate students, for graduate students. If you are experiencing isolation, or feel like you need people to be able to open up to about what is going on in your life, this (currently virtual) support group is a way to connect with people who can listen and support.   

Crisis Text Line-Sometimes calling a crisis line can seem daunting. The Crisis text line offers immediate, free, crisis and mental health support over text. While not a replacement for longer term support, crisis lines such as these can help you in a tough mental health moment when you need someone to talk to or help you get grounded. Text "HOME" to 741741 to be connected to one of their crisis counselors. 

NAMI-NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization. Their website has a wealth of information for those experiencing mental health issues, friends and family members of those with mental health issues, and anyone who cares about accessible mental health care. NAMI also runs a crisis line (by phone and online chat), which is available on their website.