Mental Health: A Basic Need We Can Support Together

By Kevin Friese

By Kevin Friese

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This piece is part of the series, "A Community of Support," which highlights and supports mental health at the U of A.

We don't always take time to be generous with ourselves. How tired do you feel at the end of a long day of video meetings? While we might be doing the same work that we were doing pre-pandemic, we are now doing it differently and that can take an emotional and mental toll. Or, we might be adapting to the changes and taking on new and different work. Regardless, staying focused on virtual work is difficult. It is so easy in this kind of environment, where we are isolating and constantly using screens, to forget to exercise, eat healthy, and take care of ourselves. We don't always treat our mental health like a basic need that needs to be met. It has become more important than ever to check in with ourselves and our family, friends, and colleagues. We have to do what we can to mitigate burnout by remembering, or learning how, to be gentle with ourselves. It has become really important to take time to understand which coping skills work for us, to know where to turn for help, and to be open to learning about how this pandemic experience is affecting us.

Some ways that you can check in with yourself and understand how this experience might be affecting you are to look for changes in your sleeping patterns, or recognize a heightened anxiety when on virtual calls. I have spoken with individuals who are struggling to shut off at the end of the day. Others are noting a lack of motivation. Our clinicians [in Counselling & Clinical Services] point out that these changes in behaviour can often be representative of stress, anxiety, and other factors linked to the pandemic. Recognizing these changes, especially at an early stage, can help you reach out for support through your social networks, mentor relationships, or services available on campus and in the greater community. It is equally important to consider what coping strategies work best for you. Exercising, taking up a new hobby, or becoming a volunteer/mentor might reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Our students have their own set of unique challenges, and it is important that faculty and staff are mindful of their students' mental health. Many students are faced with intersectional and systemic uncertainties. Our students are uncertain about what the situation caused by the pandemic will mean for their academic and professional careers. Students always have different learning styles, but the discrepancies are heightened in a remote academic environment. There are individuals who are very comfortable operating in the virtual environment, but others who are tactile learners and for whom the loss of the in-person learning experience is significant. Understanding these differences is important.

When the pandemic first started to affect the U of A, a lot of our questions were in regard to basic needs - like safety, security, and physical wellness - and we saw a decline in the amount of people accessing the U of A's mental health resources. As those basic needs are being addressed, people are now looking further ahead and accepting the realities of COVID-19. We are starting to hear more from people about their experiences with anxiety and feelings of isolation and disconnection. People are struggling to feel connected in a virtual environment, leading to feelings of loss and isolation. We are all looking for coping strategies to deal with strong emotions like grief and loss. When we do not know how to effectively cope with them, we may try to avoid them instead. Acknowledging these feelings is an important first step to being able to cope with these emotions. As challenging as this all is, we are also seeing some incredible champions who are leading innovative discussions and programming to address these challenges and concerns. Just as the pandemic is creating mental health concerns, it is also bringing out the best in people.

As long as the pandemic continues to affect campus life, members of the U of A community will use this series to explore a variety of topics in more detail, including: self-care strategies, supporting students who are engaging remotely, creating a safe and supportive workspace, and managing anxiety. We are all in this together.

Kevin Friese, Assistant Dean of Students, Health & Wellness, Office of the Dean of Students

If you would like to contribute a story to our mental health series, or have an idea for a topic you would like to see covered, please email blog@ualberta.ca.blog@ualberta.ca.