With several Washington colleges moving away again, an expert shares tips on how to support the mental health of students

As the Omicron variant rises and colleges across Washington adjust their plans – the University of Washington, Bellevue College, and Seattle University have all announced they will start winter courses remotely or postpone the start of face-to-face classes – Meghann Gerber thinks a lot about the “here we go again” feeling that is suddenly rising in college communities.

That “feeling is almost like a reminder of how hard it was to start with,” said Gerber, a Seattle clinical psychologist and former head of a mental health clinic at UW. “As educators, as parents, as friends and students ourselves, we can only say: ‘Yes, that’s right, that’s totally difficult.'”

Gerber who left UW 2020 to start the not-yet-operating mental health nonprofit formed spoke to the Seattle Times this week about how academic institutions, parents and loved ones can support college students during this next phase of the pandemic.

This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Some students feel a sense of déjà vu when starting another quarter or semester remotely. Many remember the sense of social disconnection that came with the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic. What would you say to students who are afraid or worried about going back to distance learning?

Fear in response to this development is perfectly normal. And that doesn’t necessarily make it easier or make it go away.

We also learned a lot from this experience about what works and what doesn’t. Many of those early days of the pandemic were only trial and error.

For example if you [are learning remotely and] You can see the lecture at any time, what time of day is the best time to get information? It is possible that this course is not planned. For students with learning disabilities or ADHD, this can be a crucial factor in having access to their classroom materials that support their learning at one time and place.

What have we learned about how professors and other academic staff can remotely support students who are having emotional problems?

I think of some of the practices I learned in the workplace. Because it’s so much harder to get a feel for where people are mentally and emotionally, [some workplaces have] started devoting the first 10 to 15 minutes of a team meeting to just checking in with people. How are we, where are we? I always think of it like professors or teaching assistants or even board members [could] do more to create awareness that students are living emotional lives. Be it to create more space for discussions in small groups or [conversations in] Breakout rooms.

Many years ago there was a really profound thing a [professor did]. You put a cover sheet on an exam and the cover sheet just said, “Before you begin this exam, I want you to pause, take a deep breath, and remind you that you are not your grade.” It was such a minimal one Intervention. But it had a profound impact on these students. I think about such things. Even only if faculty recognizes what students may be going through or creates rooms to easily check-in with each other [can make a difference].

Students and academic staff experienced a moment of normalcy when classes were held in person in the fall semester. Maybe you just got whiplash.

One concern I’ve had is that as the restrictions wear off and we have more things to personally use, I might believe that [you can] snap your fingers and continue as normal. What we know about how mental health works, and how people survive really difficult circumstances, is that while things are unpredictable, you just keep them together. You go into survival mode.

After the rise in COVID cases, there could be an increase in mental health problems. I think this is really important for people who work with students and support students. And it is important that the students think of this for themselves.

With the rise in Omicron cases in Washington, some students are panicking again about contracting the coronavirus. What coping strategies would you suggest?

There is this balancing act that we set ourselves: how can we be conscious and aware that this is real, and at the same time not get caught up in the risk that we will not be able to access other parts of our lives that actually do it help us to be resilient. It’s super important in times that are scary [that are] high stress, which challenges us in many areas to take time for pleasant experiences. And be very aware when you take the time to relax and unwind.

What signs or risk factors should parents or friends look out for when they are concerned about the well-being or safety of a loved one?

I have certainly asked this question often in the times before the pandemic. If you notice a significant change in someone’s behavior, this is probably the best indicator that something is going on with them. When someone withdraws, when their performance is refueling, something happens. Lean in. Find out how you can help [them]. The most useful tool we have is a communication line.

It’s hard to find a therapist right now, no matter who you are. What resources would you recommend to college students struggling to find professional help?

Peer support resources may be easier to obtain than professional resources. There are many different peer support programs at different institutions. They are usually carried out through the health center or the health promotion office.

Sometimes when you have a friend or someone close to you who you would like to speak to, they are a good person who can help you take some of the measures that are really hard to do when you are struggling. If you are very depressed and someone gives you a list of 20 therapists that you can call to see if someone has an opening, that is completely unrealistic (to achieve). But this is a really concrete job that you can get help with someone who cares for you, who wants you to connect.

More Mental Health Resources for Washington College Students:

Having trouble finding a therapist near Seattle? Here are some tips

Running into roadblocks while looking for a therapist? Here are some additional options

Mapping Washington Mental Health Care: A Look at How the System Works and Its Gaps

Seattle area teenagers created this guide to help connect teenagers to multicultural mental health care

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