We’re All in This Together: Mental Health Tips for Drexel Students in the Age of COVID-19

Annette Molyneux, PhD, assistant vice president for Student Life and director of Counseling and Health Services at Drexel University, discusses the drastic daily changes students face due to the coronavirus pandemic, and how to cope.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest information on campus preparations and responses regarding COVID-19.

“I’ve been in this line of work for the better part of 40 years, and in terms of the global kind of experience, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Annette Molyneux, PhD, assistant vice president for Student Life and director of Counseling and Health Services at Drexel University, of the COVID-19 pandemic. “So many people at the same time are going through this type of situation.”

It’s not that Molyneux hasn’t counseled clients, including Drexel students, through traumatizing experiences in her decades-long career. She remembers the collective mental health impact following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. She’s also worked with international students grappling with troubling issues in their home countries, and the impact on their families, from afar.

But with the novel coronavirus, there’s a far-reaching togetherness that can be both a comfort and a curse from a mental health perspective.

“It’s a good thing because you know you’re not alone, and there’s some comfort in that, to know that other people are experiencing pretty much the same thing,” Molyneux said of the impact from collective experiences like the uprooting of daily routines and self-quarantining. “The other side of it is that it can be pretty scary. It’s pretty frightening to know that everybody is going through this, and the situation being what it is, none of us know how it’s going to turn out in the long run. 

For Drexel students who may be feeling anxiety or the adverse effects of emotional contagion brought about by the pandemic, there are ways to cope. Here are some strategies from Molyneux, and students should also reach out to the Counseling Center to set up individual teletherapy services or to discusses these strategies further.

Take control

As you might have already seen from other experts providing work-from-home and productivity tips for the pandemic, Molyneux said trying to stick to a daily routine is both very difficult and very important.

“It’s easy to just let things loose, to stay up too late, maybe party a little bit more than you would ordinarily,” she said. “But it’s healthier, and it helps you get through, if you stick to a routine, if you have some plan for your day, if you go through and do whatever you need to do to feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Part of why doing this is beneficial to mental health, Molyneux added, is that a lot of what contributes to anxiety in times like these is a loss of control.

“So, imposing some kind of control over your own life helps,” she said.

Taking control will also be especially important as students transition to remote learning, Molyneux said. That is, the transition away from in-person classes and accountability means students will have to manage their time more independently, and be more cognizant of staying focused and sticking to deadlines.

But it’s equally important to give yourself a break, Molyneux added.

“Give yourself freedom to let things slide every now and again, or backslide a little bit, because we are all human, and we need to be able to forgive ourselves when things don’t work out exactly the way we want them to,” she said. “Our best-laid plan could blow up and that’s OK, too, to give yourself that.”

Take a break

Along with giving yourself a break, Molyneux said students should make sure to give themselves a break from the 24-hour news cycle, as well.

“It’s important to get the information you need. It helps you feel like you have some control when you at least understand what’s going on, you can make better decisions,” she said. “But, it’s also important to take a break. If you’re glued to CNN all day long and listening to all the doom and gloom and negative kind of reports, that can be really disheartening and really discouraging. … Take a break from it when you can an engage in something a little lighter.”

A great way to do this is to get into some kind of meditation practice, even though this is often very difficult for Drexel students to do, Molyneux said. For students who’d like to give it a try, mindfulness exercises and other helpful resources can be found on the Counseling Center’s “Coping With COVID-19” webpage.

“It’s just a nice way to escape and find some peace, some internal peace, so that you can get it together and then keep on going,” Molyneux said of meditation. “When you’re really stressed out, learning how to control that, how to mitigate some of that, how to manage that so you don’t go off the edge, that’s a problem our students tend to have in general. … I think that might be one of the trickiest things for Drexel students to learn, honestly.”

Confronting the change of pace, and specifically the amount of down time students might now have without labs, research projects, student groups and on-campus events, might be even more stressful for some Drexel students than not feeling like they have enough time on their hands, Molyneux said.

“A lot of our students are so driven and so self-motivated that [managing their time] might not be an issue,” she said. “But you will have downtime, so, it depends on how you use it. … Some students could really benefit from a little bit of a break in the intensity.”

Take it one day at a time

However the changes brought about by COVID-19 have you feeling, there’s one key strategy Molyneux says to employ to grapple with the biggest ones: take it day-by-day.

Most notably, Molyneux said this is how students who may be feeling tension within their households, or who may have entered into less-than-ideal living conditions when they entered into self-quarantine, can try to cope.

“It’s not easy. To be perfectly frank, it’s not easy. People have interpersonal issues. We love each other … but sometimes, family dynamics are problematic,” she said. “When you’re more-or-less confined in those situations where you’re thrust back into that family dynamic which is troubling to begin with, it’s not easy. Again, finding ways to put yourself in a different room, call a friend, reach out for help, whatever it takes to kind of get through the rough spots is helpful.”

Similarly, students may be feeling stress and anxiety from changes to their financial situation, or the situation of a loved one. Taking it one day at a time and remembering you’re not alone in this situation and the stress that surrounds it can be helpful coping strategies for this as well, Molyneux said.

“Right now, it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle for many people,” she said. “I guess, to appreciate what you do have is really important, and to understand this is a temporary situation and we will get on the other side of it and there’s an opportunity for things to get back to the way they were, for people to recover.”

Stay connected

Despite all the changes Drexel students are facing due to COVID-19, Molyneux said she read a report that college-age students may be better equipped to handle this isolation period than those in the older and younger generations.

But it’s still important to stay connected, however you can, with the people, things and activities you love outside of your isolations space, she said. That’s especially true for those who live alone, and are therefore sheltering in place alone.

Use online tools like social media, Zoom, FaceTime and the Marco Polo app to connect with friends and family, Molyneux said, as well as keep up with physical outlets and exercise. She herself has been taking advantage of Instagram livestreams from the Drexel Rec Center.

“Some people tolerate that better than others. Some people prefer to be alone, so to speak. But reach out. You have connections out there. Make sure that you stay in touch with them,” she said. “Whatever format you have available to you, use that and stay connected.”

All-in-all, Molyneux would implore any students who need help during this time to reach out to the Counseling Center to set up a HIPPA-compliant Zoom meeting, or even call the 24/7 helpline at 215.416.3337 in case of emergencies.

“We’re still in business. We’re all set up to do teletherapy. The therapists are all available to ‘meet’ with the students,” Molyneux said. “Definitely reach out. You are not alone. We get calls like that all the time. That’s why were there, … to support students however they need to be supported.

“There’s absolutely no shame or embarrassment in reaching out for help, and there’s no issue too small. If you’re struggling with anything, give us a call.”