By DONOVAN HARRELL
Experts gathered last week at an online panel discussion to share mental health management tips and resources with the Pitt community as it and the rest of the world continue to adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University Senate hosted the event on April 9 on Zoom. Jack Rozel, medical director at Resolve Crisis Services, moderated the panel of five experts: Provost Ann Cudd; Jay Darr, University Counseling Center director; Sansea Jacobson, associate professor of psychiatry; Christina Newhill, professor with the School of Social Work; and Nancy McKee, a clinical manager at Life Solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Senate to postpone its spring plenary session on mental health, but Senate President Chris Bonneau said the officers “didn’t want to pack it in this semester,” so they worked to create a virtual alternative. The event was organized by David Salcido, Senate vice president, and Linda Tashbook, of the Senate’s Mental Health Task Force and a librarian and adjunct professor in the School of Law.
When the officers decided on the plenary topic in the fall, Bonneau added, they didn’t realize how timely it would be.
Cudd agreed, adding that social distancing can leave people feeling isolated, even though it is necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
“It was a different time, but (mental health management) has become more important than ever, I think, in these days that we are separated from each other,” Cudd said, thanking the Pitt community for its various efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
During a crisis like this, it’s important for University leadership to balance decisive action with acting with a sense of urgency, Cudd said.
“I’m recognizing also that continuity of business is exceptionally important to our mental health,” Cudd said. “We also have to move forward together judiciously. And through it all, my goal, in addition to many others, is to alleviate stress so our faculty, staff and students can bring their best work forward under these exceptionally unusual and difficult circumstances.”
Rozel began the panel by encouraging the roughly 160 listeners to value their mental health during this crisis.
“Much of this will be about finding that new normal, but at the same time, remembering that our radical acceptance of our reality is still going to be the foundation for achieving our values and our vision,” Rozel said. “We must tend both to our mental health as well as our physical safety, and finding the balance ... can be challenging.”
Darr described the crisis with stronger terms, calling it an “unreal” and “serious, unprecedented event” where many are venturing into uncharted territory.
Since in-person care for students is no longer available, University Counseling Services has worked to offer its help through virtual workshops, teletherapy and making sure clinicians are available for potential crisis calls throughout the week.
The pandemic has created a stressful situation for staff as well, Darr said, as they transition to working remotely. Jacobson said faculty also can struggle with balancing the new demands that come from working remotely.
“Probably most importantly, from my standpoint right now is normalizing that it is human to be stressed right now and that we have to have some self-compassion for ourselves,” Jacobson said.
“We all just aren’t as efficient and effective because we are distracted, because we are trying to multitask,” he said. “And we know that that contributes to stress and fatigue and decreased efficiency and effectiveness. So please do forgive yourself and know that most of us are working multiple full-time jobs right now.”
McKee agreed, adding people need to cut themselves and others some slack.
“Those papers that you want to write, those grants that need to be revised, aren’t going to go away, they’re not going to disappear if you don’t get to them right away,” McKee said. “It isn’t the end of the world if work is done more slowly, or not at all for a while.
She said people should take care to not minimize their own hardships during this period.
“I want you to take a personal inventory,” McKee said. “How are you doing? Have you asked yourself that? What am I doing? How am I looking at my feelings and thoughts? … Because sometimes we’re so busy taking care of other people that we forget that we need to take care of ourselves.”
She recommended that people take “five minutes and walk away from what’s going on sometimes,” do some breathing exercises and try to find new ways to cope with this unprecedented situation.
Keeping a schedule can help bring more structure and a sense of control during this period where people may find themselves feeling helpless, McKee added.
Newhill agreed with her suggestion and added that that the pandemic has caused many to panic.
“I think that part of what makes a virus pandemic so unnerving is that a virus can’t be seen with the naked eye,” Newhill said. “Someone may be infected and not know it. And the virus seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. …
“People generally feel secure when they feel like they have control over their life, control over their destiny. And a virus like the one we’re living with today, this pandemic makes people feel like they are out of control or they’re losing control.”
People with pre-existing mental health issues are especially vulnerable during this time, Newhill said, and the panic and anxiety of the moment can exacerbate their symptoms.
Depressed people may feel even more alone and hopeless in the face of the virus, especially if they lose their job or business slows down. People coping with obsessive-compulsive disorders may be feeling increased struggles with their compulsions, and people with anxiety disorders can become more anxious with “genuine fear” of the virus exacerbating it.
The increased social isolation may slow the spread of the virus, but social interactions and support are critical for helping people cope with their illnesses. To combat this, Newhill encouraged listeners to take time to reach out to their coworkers, friends, families and loved ones who seem to be stressed. Listeners should actively listen and “lend an empathetic ear” to them. If that person doesn’t feel like talking, tell them that you’re there for them and will be willing to listen later on.
McKee said this collaboration is necessary for the Pitt community and said Life Solutions is available for Pitt and UPMC staff and faculty. People over the age of 14 living in staff and faculty households also can contact the program for more support.
McKee said the information shared with Life Solutions is confidential, and that the best time to reach out is when feelings of depression and anxiety increase and when you feel you aren’t able to “bounce back” or feel resilient when things go wrong.
A student participant asked the panelists how they should communicate with their professors if their pre-existing mental health conditions are exacerbated to the point that they are unable to do their work.
Newhill said the student can reach out to their professor and tell them that they are struggling to complete tasks without revealing private details about their mental illness. But if a student doesn’t feel comfortable approaching their professor, they can reach out to their academic advisor about possible solutions.
Bonneau further encouraged students to reach out to their professors if they’re having a hard time during the pandemic.
“We’ll figure it out,” Bonneau said. “I think there’s much more of an opportunity here for collaboration, working on mutual solutions. I would encourage you to, even if that person’s unapproachable, try that first because I suspect you’ll be surprised.”
He encouraged faculty to “explicitly say to their students, ‘I am here for you. I welcome talking with you, not just about assignments or the subject matter, but also about how you’re doing.’”
Rozel said Resolve Crisis Services offers free 24/7 support through crisis phone services for faculty and staff dealing with any issues related to homeschooling children and working with gifted children with highly functional Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Jacobson said another resource is the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The organization provides resources to support families trying to homeschool their children why juggling other responsibilities.
Rozel ended with two recommendations to help participants cope with the pandemic and societal issues around it.
“First, put your own oxygen on first, just like they say when you’re in the airplane,” Rozel said. “We can’t care for the needs of others who are important to us, be they students, our family members, our colleagues, if we have not cared for ourselves first. And it’s OK … to give yourself permission to do it.”
Second, he said, “Remember that this is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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