University responds to pandemic’s effect on mental health


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Even though in-person programs such as drop-in hours and Let’s Talk have been suspended, Pitt’s Counseling Center provides students with access to Therapy Assistance Online, a resource with interactive therapy programs.

By Katie Sottile, Staff Writer

Staying home from school would normally be a welcomed change of pace, but during a global pandemic, it can be a massive source of anxiety.

Pitt students face a variety of disruptions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the University announced on March 11 that it would be transitioning to online classes, students have been responsible for moving out of on-campus housing and returning home. Now they must adjust to finishing the last month of the semester remotely.

The changes to the semester and the unprecedented nature of the pandemic can evoke feelings of anxiety within students, said Dr. Jay Darr, director of the Counseling Center. According to Darr, the Counseling Center has modified its arrangement of services to assist students virtually, in lieu of in-person appointments.

“The University community is committed to doing its part to protect public health, while still maintaining activities that are essential to its mission of education, research and community impact,” Darr said in an email.

While in-person programs such as drop-in hours and Let’s Talk have been suspended, virtual workshops and Therapy Assistance Online are available through the Counseling Center website.

Darr advises students to pursue routines and activities that enable them to decompress during this uncertain time.

“You are not alone in finding this unprecedented event overwhelming and stressful,” Darr said. “We recommend unplugging from media and social platforms for at least a few minutes or an hour, participating in one of our virtual workshops or exploring interests virtually by taking an online art, dance or exercise class.”

With a large portion of Americans practicing physical distancing techniques, social media has become even more prolific in helping people stay connected. Platforms like FaceTime and Skype let students stay in contact with people from whom they are isolated. Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley, a Pitt psychology professor, suggested being thoughtful with social media.

“The trick is to use social media mindfully and intentionally — to pay attention to which aspects of social media help your mood,” Choukas-Bradley said in an email. “Try to focus on using social media for what we all need right now: social connection.” 

Choukas-Bradley acknowledged that quarantine can lead to frustration, but said staying home is one of the most critical things people can do to prevent the spread of the virus. Even if there are no confirmed cases in your region, physical distancing is still imperative in protecting the health of members of the community who are more vulnerable, such as older people and those without access to health care resources, Choukas-Bradley said.

Furthermore, some students might be stressed out by the notion of going home after experiencing autonomy at Pitt. Having to abruptly return to living with parents can be jarring, Choukas-Bradley said. She thinks it is important for students to develop a schedule with their parents, where they can budget time together, but also time apart.

Although ongoing events can feel scary, Dr. Christina Newhill, a professor within Pitt’s School of Social Work, encouraged students to take advantage of the new normal.

“Try to embrace the ordinary with pleasure — cooking a meal, petting your cat or dog, playing Monopoly with your family and listening to the music you find relaxing,” Newhill said via email. “It is fine to indulge in the warm, secure feelings of being with others who love you and care about your welfare.”

Newhill also has advice for students who might be struggling with feelings of displacement or homesickness for their lives at Pitt. Just as you keep in contact with your friends, feel free to keep in contact with your professors, Newhill said.

“If the professor offers to talk with their students on the phone, make contact and set up a time to do that,” Newhill said. “You can talk about the class, of course, but most professors are also very willing to talk with you about how things are going with the transitions.”

There is an assortment of online resources aside from the ones provided by the University that can help students combat feelings of loneliness or isolation. Self-help apps like Calm, Happify, Headspace and Youper can be beneficial to students, according to Darr.

Darr recommends students use the teletherapy filter on Psychology Today, in addition to BetterHelp, Talkspace or ReGain to find mental health professionals in their area. Similarly, Choukas-Bradley wants students to be aware of the crisis hotline for Allegheny County, which can be reached at 1-888-796-8226.

As you continue to spend time at home, allow yourself to use this as a means for personal growth.

“Look for the silver linings in the current situation,” Choukas-Bradley said. “Take this opportunity to learn to sit with silence and to practice mindfulness.”