Student and Academic Life

Addressing Student Mental Health Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Assistant Director and Outreach Director of the University of Kentucky Counseling Center Megan Marks encourages students to utilize virtual Counseling Center resources during these unprecedented times.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 1, 2020) — Ordinary life as we knew it came to a halt as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded across the nation — creating an onslaught of stressors for the campus community. The pandemic poses an obvious threat to physical safety, but it’s important to remember that the mental impact of COVID-19 is just as real as the physical impact. 

Lockdowns, travel restrictions, school closings and social (physical) distancing have created a level of social isolation previously unseen across the globe. This upend, for many, can have profound consequences on one’s mental health. 

University of Kentucky Counseling Center (UKCC) Assistant Director and Outreach Director Megan Marks wants to reassure UK students that counseling services are still available to offer emotional support virtually until the UK campus returns to a safe and reinvented normal. 

“Taking care of our mental health is always important and requires daily intention and insight into oneself. However, times of uncertainty can enhance our distress and make us all more vulnerable, regardless of our past effort invested in our mental health,” Marks said. “The fear and anxiety that students may feel due to the impact of COVID-19 can cause stronger emotions, can impact sleeping and eating patterns as well as concentration, exacerbate health conditions, increase substance use and worsen mental health concerns. While stress is a normal psychological reaction to life demands, if a student is experiencing worsening mental health symptoms such as feeling hopeless or miserable and is having difficulty carrying out typical daily responsibilities, it is time to reach out for support.”

According to recent findings, nearly half of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over COVID-19. For the one in five who already have mental health conditions — or the one in two who are at risk of developing them — it is important that we take swift measures to address these statistics by providing resources for those in need.

Marks says for students experiencing mental health concerns, focusing on what you can control, and on consistency, is a good place to start.

“We encourage students to create a daily schedule — you can start with your pre-COVID schedule and work from there," she said. "For instance, wake up at the same time of the day and create a morning routine, which might include making your bed, stretching or meditation, making some coffee or going outside for a bit. Activities to think about while creating our routines are going to bed and waking up, personal hygiene, snacks and meals, exercise routines, screen time vs. non-screen time activities, schoolwork and/or going to work and time with friends and family.”

Marks also recommends the following at home mental health coping strategies: 

  • Reducing your exposure to social media. If you aren’t sleeping well, check in with how much news and social media you are watching each day. At night, create a bedtime routine to include aspects like dimming the lights, reducing noise, taking a warm bath or shower and drinking a warm non-caffeinated beverage. Students should also know about the sleep program called Refresh that is available to them for free. 
  • Focusing on what you put into your body. Water is important to help keep our energy levels up and help our immune system. Focus on eating meals that nourish you in balanced ways, physically and emotionally. The key is balance — having the ice cream while also exploring and trying out new recipes for vegetables and proteins. If you find yourself snacking more than usual, keep track of your intake. The simple act of tracking your eating as well as drinking, can reduce your consumption.  
  • Take time to make room for purpose and meaning. There have been many disappointments and losses due to COVID-19, and while we certainly can’t control what is happening in the world, students can control their inner experience of it. The UKCC encourages students to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and to engage in mindfulness, through programs like KORU, meditation or using apps like Stressbusters, Mindfulness Coach, Headspace, Insight Timer or Calm. Getting involved in volunteer work can also be powerful and meaningful. Students can make masks, offer to shop for more vulnerable neighbors or spread positive messages throughout their neighborhood. Finally, as many churches are hosting virtual services now, this could be a time to connect or re-connect with a religious or spiritual community and belief system. 

Discovering a mental health plan that fits your current stress response and needs is key. Remembering that your response and needs may also change over the coming weeks and months as news surrounding the pandemic continues to develop is also vital.

While at-home coping strategies are great, sometimes they just aren’t enough. With that in mind, the UKCC is doing everything it can to quickly shift counseling services for students from in-person therapy to telephone or video sessions. The technology is considered an effective option for the human connection that many students need. 

The UKCC is offering the following services to students over the summer: 

  • Online programming such as meditation, guided imagery and Question, Persuade, and Refer. Online programs for specific groups of students such as Relax, Relate, Release for students of color and SpeakOUT for LGBTQ+ students are also available. 
  • All students are also welcome to utilize the Let’s Teletalk program where students can connect with a UKCC clinician for a brief one-on-one conversation via Zoom. Let’s Teletalk is offered daily. This is a great service for students who are wanting some support but aren’t necessarily wanting to engage in on-going therapy. 
  • Currently, for students living in Kentucky, the UKCC is offering individual and group therapy. Several groups such as the Graduate and Professional Student Support Group, Grief Support Group, and the Understanding Self and Others (USO) Groups are available. Students are welcome to call the UKCC to talk about their services. 
  • Phone consultations are available outside of regular office hours, by calling UKCC’s main number 859-257-8701 and pressing "1" at the prompt.
  • If a student lives outside of Kentucky and would like to engage in therapy, the UKCC can help students connect with therapists in their state. 
  • “Community Check-ins” via Zoom are another option available to students. These are opportunities for students in specific colleges or students connected with specific offices to gather together and share how they are doing during the pandemic and for UKCC members to share coping strategies. Any faculty or staff member is welcome to contact the UKCC to set up a community check in.

If you are a faculty or staff member who would like to learn more about how you can support students, the UKCC can host programs to further explain their support services. To request a workshop, click here

The UKCC has also created a Google Doc that is regularly updated with resources for students to use while coping with the pandemic. 

To stay up to date with programing offered through the UKCC and for additional information on services​ offered, visit the UKCC website or their social media channels. You can also reach the UKCC at 859-257-8701. 

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.