University Senate panel talks mental health in virtual meeting


Screenshot via Zoom

The University Senate held a panel discussion on mental health in academic life during the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday afternoon via Zoom.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Assistant News Editor

Mental wellness has become a widely discussed topic during the ongoing pandemic. Some Pitt community members took the time to discuss how current events are affecting mental health in academia and what can be done to address it. 

The panel discussion, hosted by the University Senate, took place over Zoom Thursday afternoon with about 160 people in attendance. Pitt community members could submit questions via email and in the Q&A section of the meeting.

Jack Rozel, an associate professor of psychiatry, adjunct professor of law and medical director of the Resolve Crisis Services, moderated the event and facilitated questions for the five panelists in attendance. These panelists included Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd, University Counseling Center Director Jay Darr, associate professor of psychiatry Sansea Jacobson, professor Christina Newhill and Nancy McKee, a clinical manager at Lifesolutions.

A major topic of discussion was how to handle the changes in routine that have resulted from social distancing, online classes and working from home. Jacobson, who is also a child psychiatrist, said she believes it is important to normalize the large amounts of stress many are feeling right now due to these abrupt life changes.

“It is human to be stressed right now. We all just aren’t as efficient and effective because we are distracted, because we are trying to multitask and we know that that contributes to stress, fatigue and decreased effectiveness,” Jacobson said. “Please forgive yourself and know that most of us are working multiple full time jobs right now, and that’s not actually possible.”

According to Newhill, a professor in the school of social work who teaches classes in mental health practice, this can be an especially difficult time for individuals with mental illnesses. She said this is due to the invisible, yet universal threat of COVID-19 and loss of control many feel in their lives.

“The virus seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It’s kind of all around us but we don’t really know where it is,” Newhill said. “This leaves people to feel frightened and panicked.”

The efforts that are necessary to control the spread of the virus require people to give up some of the sources of help and support that bring them security, mainly contact with other people and access to day-to-day resources like toilet paper.

Newhill said the efforts needed to control the spread of the virus have left many people without their usual sources of support and security, specifically contact with their peers. In addition to this, many people are experiencing the adverse effects of the pandemic such as layoffs, family stress and financial problems. As a result, people who live with mental illnesses and emotional challenges can be left vulnerable and experience heightened symptoms. 

“One of the most important buffers for people with mental illnesses is good, positive social support. Social isolation is the opposite of what helps a lot of people maintain wellness and security,” she said.

Darr said the University Counseling Center, along with the rest of Student Affairs, is currently working to find ways to make the University a “smaller community” as many Pitt community members are social distancing across the country and around the world. He said the UCC is doing this by offering many of the services that are normally in person — such as workshops and therapy sessions — in a virtual setting. The UCC’s 24/7 crisis hotline is also still available for students to utilize if necessary.

Newhill said many of her own students were grateful to have teletherapy resources like these but said some experienced challenges when it comes to privacy. She said others may be experiencing something similar.

“They are back home, they’re living with their families and they want to talk to their therapist over FaceTime, but they’re afraid that other people are going to overhear,” she said. “There is that contact but there are some challenges that go with it.”

One student in attendance raised concerns regarding how they and potentially other college students with mental illnesses have been struggling with their own symptoms, and as a result, have struggled to adjust to remote learning and complete their assignments. The student asked for advice as to how to deal with these problems and bring them up to professors.

In regards to this situation, Newhill said it is important for students to have an open dialogue with their professors about their situation if they are comfortable doing so. If a student feels they can’t approach their professor or it does not seem to be helpful, she also suggested speaking with their academic advisor. 

In response to this, Rozel said he sees how students may feel disconnected from faculty and that their professors may not care or want to hear about these kinds of situations. He said he encourages students to reach out to their professors and express what they are going through.

Newhill said she encourages faculty to open lines of communication during this time and explicitly state that they are available if a student needs to talk about not only course material, but how students are doing as well.

“I would really encourage faculty to explicitly say to their students, ‘I am here for you. I welcome talking to you,’” Newhill said. “If faculty say, ‘Yes I’m approachable. Yes I’m willing to talk to you,’ students will come forward.”