Helping College Students Cope With COVID-19

These four tips will help your college student weather the coronavirus storm.

Posted Mar 29, 2020

I've written extensively about the importance of social connection for college students in previous blog posts and my book, The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students. Studies show that college students are spending more and more time on social media and less time with face-to-face contact. Too much social media time can increase loneliness and depression, as shown by a study of the University of Pennsylvania college students. I've shared this information with the students I have sat with in my campus psychiatry office, encouraging them to put aside their cellphones and go hiking or out to eat with friends.

The wave of COVID-19 sweeping the nation has changed everything and washed away all my previous advice. I cannot even practice what I preach with face-to-face contact. Two weeks ago, our campus psychiatric providers started doing telepsychiatry to protect both the students and us from the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing is a matter of life and death. The online technology that I advised to use less of is now the students' lifeline—to finishing this semester's classes, keeping in touch with friends and family, and obtaining treatment. 

Some students are doing surprisingly well with social distancing, whether they have stayed in an apartment near campus or returned home. They are reaching out to friends and family through video chat platforms. Some are taking walks with friends (with 6 feet of separation). Others have taken up crafts and are having time to cook healthy foods. They are getting enough sleep and valuing a schedule that is less frenetically busy than what they are used to. 

Other students may not be doing as well, impacted physically, financially, or emotionally by the coronavirus crisis. We have students who are ill with flu-like symptoms and are waiting for their test results. Others have lost jobs and worry about their parents becoming unemployed. Some students are fortunate enough to go home with family, while others do not have a safe home to return to. Students may have the onset of new mental health problems or fear they cannot continue their current treatments. 

Schools are scrambling to determine how they will continue to provide mental health care for the students who have gone home to complete the semester online. Some states are now allowing the practice of therapy and psychiatry across states lines, so care can be continued. Many college psychiatric providers are leaping into the practice of telepsychiatry. Studies have shown telepsychiatry to be beneficial if provided within certain guidelines. I am grateful for the ability to provide care, but I am left wondering, how will this change my practice? For patients I am just getting to know, will we connect in the same way? COVID-19 will have a major impact on how we practice psychiatry in the future.

If your student's college is discontinuing care, the school provider or case manager should be able to help your student find treatment where they are living. Some states have announced the availability of volunteer mental health providers offering free services. Many community mental health centers are providing telemental health. There are several online platforms providing therapy and psychiatric services. Accessing care right now might require some creativity, but it is possible. 

Whether your college student has moved home or remains in an apartment near their college, you can be an integral part of maintaining their mental health. If they get distressed, quiet their worries with the SHHH tips: Structure, Health, Happiness, and Hope. 

Structure: College students may be disoriented by having to move home to do classes online. In order to combat this disorientation, students need to maintain their structure, getting up and going to bed at the same time each day, finding a time and a place to do their work, and creating leisure time to Zoom or FaceTime with friends. 

Health: Students can boost their immune system during this time of pandemic by getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising. Discourage vaping, as there are harmful chemicals in the vaping liquids that can decrease immunity. Ensure they are following local recommendations regarding staying in place or quarantining. Even though most young people infected with COVID-19 will recover, we don't want them to take the chance of getting it or unknowingly spreading it to others. Social distancing is a great way to maintain their health and help others. 

Happiness: Our daily pleasures—meeting friends for lunch, going to the gym, having friends visit our homes—have been taken away. However, that does not mean happiness has disappeared. Encourage your student to go outside daily, keeping a safe distance from others, as long as that is allowed where you live. Calling a friend, playing a musical instrument, doing crafts, journaling, reading, cooking, watching a movie or miniseries, are all enjoyable indoor activities. 

Hope: We have been through crises before and come out stronger. I've heard stories about my grandmother nearly dying from the Spanish flu of 1918. During the last century, our country has experienced pandemics, wars, and recessions, but our economy has always recovered. We can reassure our children that life will get back to normal eventually, sharing experiences of how our parents and grandparents survived times of upheaval. Teach that hope is not just believing things will get better; it is taking action to make that happen. Self-care and keeping up with classes are part of what keeps hope alive. 

Life has slowed and almost feels like it has come to a halt. Take this time to pause and examine how you and your college student can prioritize what really matters. Consider Henry David Thoreau, who followed a life of social distancing for five years, living in a cabin near Walden Pond to acquire a greater understanding of himself and the world. Of his many wonderful quotes from that time, one stands out: "Goodness is the only investment that never fails." What a great life lesson for ourselves and our college students during these challenging times.