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Campus & Community

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

April 16, 2020

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.

[Editor’s Note: DrexelNow conducted an interview with Annette Molyneux about mental health and well-being tips that could be used by Dragons during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parts of that interview appeared in a DrexelNow article written specifically for students. Relevant general information and information specifically for faculty and staff are included in this DrexelNow article.]

“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 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.”

Faculty, professional staff and their dependents can access free and confidential telephone counseling sessions though Drexel’s Employee Assistance Program by calling 888.628.4824. Individuals are entitled to up to five sessions per issue, per year. Given the current climate, telephone counseling would be most appropriate, though referrals for in-person session are also available through the program should an employee want to do so once social distancing rules are relaxed. Click here for more information.

For Drexel faculty and staff 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.

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 indulge 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, but added that it’s equally important not to go overboard with it.

“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 faculty and staff 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. For faculty and staff 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.”

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.

“Right now, it’s a struggle for many people 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.”

Take care of your family — and yourself

“You can love your family and your children, they can mean all the world to you, and yet being with your family members 24/7 after a while can get a little difficult, a little challenging,” Molyneux said. “It’s important to recognize that that will happen.”

Those with experience working from home might not have had as abrupt a transition into working remotely now. But still, the conditions and environment has changed: now everyone is working from home when their family is there too — partners, children, parents and other family members. Any routine has likely drastically changed, too.

“Managing your children’s needs at the same time you’re taking care of your own while being a responsible adult and professional, is a lot,” said Molyneux. “You may have to take care of children or other family members who rely on you, which puts an additional layer of stress on top what you’re already dealing with. You may have elderly parents whose health and well-being you’re worried about.   All of these and other issues serve to increase the pressure, uncertainty and anxiety that you might be experiencing experience.”

With everyone under one roof all the time, it’s understandable that some days will be better than others.

“It’s all about trying to manage in the best way you can and tolerating that some days it’s going to be more of a challenge than other days.  Try to figure out for yourself and your family what works best for all of you. Talk it out.” said Molyneux.

She added that if you live in an area where you are able to safely go for a bike ride around the block, adhering to safety protocols and social distancing, then try taking a break that way. Or maybe have everyone spend some time in their own corner of the house or apartment for a little bit, so everyone can have some space.

“I’m throwing these suggestions out, but I also want to be realistic about how difficulty all of this can be. It’s new territory for all of us.” she said. 

Don’t be afraid to talk about what’s going on. Acknowledge that you’re stressed about whatever is affecting you. If there are blow-ups, talk it out.

“It’s important to name what’s going on,’” said Molyneux. “Give yourselves the opportunity to talk through whatever it is that’s creating the tensions between you. Understand that under these circumstances you may encounter problems that you’ve never had to deal with before. Allow yourself the flexibility needed to work out solutions as you go along.” 

Stay connected

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.”

“There’s absolutely no shame or embarrassment in reaching out for help, and there’s no issue too small,” she added.

Faculty, professional staff and their dependents can access free and confidential telephone counseling sessions though Drexel’s Employee Assistance Program by calling 888.628.4824. Click here for more information.