One in five people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, Mental Health America said. To spread awareness about mental illness, the United States has observed Mental Health Awareness Month every May since 1949.
Under the stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 impacts, many who suffer from mental illness may be under even more stress.
In a survey conducted by Active Minds, a national, non-profit organization that works to reduce mental health stigmas, 80 percent of students say their mental health has worsened from the impact of COVID-19, according to Active Minds Director of Training and Engagement Becky Fein.
Cal Poly’s Active Minds chapter is one of 600 campus-based chapters across the nation.
This month, the chapter created a series of daily tasks that are meant to help someone with their mental health during the pandemic. Each week is divided into separate themes — educational, social, nutritional, physical and mental wellness — and the group posts ways to improve the specific area on their Instagram account.
Some examples include recommendations for staying connected for social wellness, and stretching for physical wellness.
“It is always important to remind others that mental health is so common and should not be such a taboo,” Active Minds Cal Poly SLO Chapter President McKenzie Leeds said.
Other places on campus have also provided resources for mental health awareness during this time.
Cal Poly’s Mindfulness Club hosts a mindful hour twice a week and a book club meeting every Sunday. The group says they want to let people know that regardless of how uncertain everything is, people have a place to feel safe and welcome.
“It’s just like a really pleasant reminder that I’m not alone,” political science junior Naveed Ansari said. “This is hard. This is chaotic. But just for an hour, we can forget about it and just come back to our breath, come back to our heart, and recognize we’re not alone and that we have a community.”
Students are not alone in this time of uncertainty, Health and Wellbeing Assistant Vice President Tina Hadaway-Mellis said.
“It’s shone a light on many challenges we face I think, as a society,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “When someone is already struggling, or has concerns about their mental health or mental well being something like this can really exacerbate that.”
Cal Poly is available to support students, while it may be in a different format, she said.
While some of Cal Poly’s campus remains closed, the Campus Health and Well Being Center remains open to students.
Many areas of the Health Center pivoted to almost a complete virtual or telephone mode immediately, according to Hadaway-Mellis. They have also worked behind the scenes to ensure that students have access via tele-health and tele-counseling, with Zoom and various video capabilities.
“We pivoted pretty quickly,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “It was pretty challenging, as it was for everyone across campus.”
James Ramirez, the campus’s Wellbeing Services Health Communication Specialist, says the mentality of being a high-achiever in the classroom has been impacted for many students.
“A lot of students, they found a way to be successful in a certain structure, and that structure has kind of been removed,” Ramirez said.
Biomedical engineering junior Abby says that having more free time made it harder for her to be productive during the stay-at-home orders. She said the pandemic has caused her more anxiety but has also given her more time to slow down. Some of her old stresses are gone, but the pandemic has brought on new ones.
Abby preferred only to use her first name for privacy reasons.
“I was finally getting used to the stresses of college and was feeling pretty good about my skills at managing those anxieties, and then I got a whole new set of stressors put on me, so it’s been a challenge to adapt,” Abby said.
For some students, though, the flexibility in online classes has actually benefited their mental health.
Software engineering junior Kaitlin Clever says the online class format allows her to structure her own schedule and have the freedom to do more things she normally wouldn’t have the time for.
“I take time for myself during the day and scheduling out a time for simple things like reading, a designated time to eat lunch, going for a walk or taking a 15 minute TV break has been huge in keeping my stress levels down,” Clever said.
In terms of access to resources though, the Health Center has seen no real loss in programs and groups, thanks to the help of several students. All meetings have moved online to Zoom, Ramirez said
“Mustangs for Recovery still operates their daily reflection on Monday, their AA meeting on Tuesday, their Coffee with Mustangs on Thursday, and their Students with Solutions on Friday,” he said.
Many students also offer a mental health dialogue group, which is online as well.
Other services, such as the food pantry, located on the lower floor of the Health Center, continue but has changed their hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They provide food to students at no cost with no questions asked, Ramirez said.
Counseling services also pivoted very quickly to offering services through a digital format, according to counseling services assistant director Kimberli Andridge.
“Initially, we were offering phone services and we’ve transitioned now with the availability of a HIPAA compliant Zoom,” Andridge said. “One of the biggest things for counseling that we wanted to prioritize was student privacy.”
About 95 percent of the counseling services are still offered at the Health Center, such as individual services, group sessions and urgent student basis resources, she said.
The counseling center is still determining how to shift group workshops for fall quarter.
“If a student calls and says, ‘hey, I need to talk to somebody today,’ we’re going to ensure that they’re talking to somebody that day, which is nice given how uncertain everything is right now, and a lot of stressors have been coming up for students,” Andridge said.
Andridge said the biggest issues popping up right now for students include increases in feeling isolated and disconnected and difficulties with adjustment.
“I was struggling at first to cope with the amount of time I was spending by myself but I decided to find some new hobbies and activities to keep myself busy,” said recreation parks and tourism junior Shannon, who did not want her last name published.
The adjustments under the pandemic come in a lot of different ways, Andridge said.
“Adjusting to the digital format, having academic struggles related to that. Accessibility struggles, maybe their WiFi is problematic, and that’s impacting their academics,” Andridge said.
Being back home is another adjustment that many students are facing, as well as finding a consistent sleep schedule. Some say they weren’t able to return to San Luis Obispo after spring break due to flight cancellations.
On top of the issues that have come with the stay-at-home orders and online academic format, Andridge said the counseling center is still seeing normal mental health problems.
“Depression, anxiety, and relationship concerns, those have been really activated because partners are separated,” she said. “A lot of minority stresses are coming up, experiences of trauma are getting activated. We’re in a pretty traumatic environment for a lot of folks and so preexisting traumas are really getting activated.”
Many groups through the counseling center are offering a drop-in format so students don’t feel they need to commit to the same sort of way, but can still access whatever support they might need. These groups include the Better Decisions Group, which is a harm reduction model for substance use, as well as transfer and graduate student support groups.
The “Let’s Talk” services are also continuing with therapists on staff.
“It’s not therapy, it’s just ‘hey, you know, I’m having a roommate problem’ or ‘hey, can you help me problem-solve this one thing,’ and it’s just kind of you hop in,” Andridge said.
The center also has a certified yoga therapist of staff who started a weekly yin yoga class.
This month, the Health Center is also putting on their fourth annual “31 Days of Wellness” program.
“Each day in the month of May we try to point people towards healthy activities,” Ramirez said. “We understand that happens on a spectrum. It’s not everybody, go for a hike and you’re good. For some people, it’s playing video games with their friends. For other people, it’s painting, for some people it’s hiking. So we really try to cast a wide net about what’s going on.”
The Health Center’s Peer Mental Health Wellness Group has been offering daily episodes on their mycpwell Instagram account, where they try to point people to things that are going on within the Cal Poly community.
While Mental Health Awareness Month only lasts through the month of May, Andridge says it is important to remember this is a different time for everyone, and to remember to practice self-compassion and empathy for ourselves.
“I think the big piece of what I’ve been talking with my students about is, just really internalizing the knowledge that we’re in a different time and a different place and things look so different,” Andridge said. “We can’t hold ourselves to the same expectations that we would have in a different time or a different place, and not comparing how you’re handling this to how other people are handling this.”