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Cultivating Mental Wellness

October 28, 2020
Irene Kraegel, director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University

Irene Kraegel, director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on mental health. But are we paying close enough attention? In a Q&A with News and Stories, Irene Kraegel, director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University, digs into the pandemic’s impact and shares some best practices that can help us through this season.

What impact has the pandemic had on our mental health?

There is a wide range of responses to the pandemic, more so than we often see portrayed in news media. I think it’s important not to oversimplify the mental health impacts. Here are some different examples of what we have observed at the counseling center.

Isolation is a big concern in terms of mental health. Many people are feeling disconnected and isolated as it has become harder for us to see each other safely. For some people, that takes a toll on mental health. Those in isolation or quarantine may feel this particularly strongly -there’s a hunger for connection in that situation, which doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a diagnosable mental health concern, but it is a form of emotional suffering. This may manifest as feelings of loneliness and disconnection, boredom, lack of general stimulation, feeling disconnected from the world … Isolation is a challenge.

Some people experience heightened anxiety in response to the pandemic. For those who are susceptible to health-related anxiety, particularly in the case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or other anxiety conditions, hearing about the contagious nature of this virus can trigger some deep and debilitating fear.

Another impact would be for those who rely on mental health treatments and supports that are less available during the pandemic, including those engaged in substance abuse treatment or recovery. If someone is not able to access their usual groups or treatment providers, that can increase risk of relapse.

For everyone, there has been loss of plans, activities, goals – this can be especially salient for student athletes, recent graduates, and others who are reaching milestones that are looking a lot different than previously expected. So grief is a common experience right now, along with a general fatigue from the effort it has taken to adapt and adjust to the major upheaval our world has gone through over the past several months. Learning to work, study, and socialize online in the midst of so much uncertainty has taken effort that has often left us exhausted and frustrated.

Then for some, there is actually a newfound feeling of freedom that has resulted from pandemic-induced societal shifts. Some people love working from home, not having to commute, having more alone time – not everyone, but many people are actually appreciating the changed pace. I’ve also heard of a number of people who have shifted priorities in the midst of this pandemic, who are adjusting their work/life balance in helpful ways. People have noticed ways that they can be less busy, things they can let go of, ways they now have freedom to engage with what is life-giving for them in a more intentional way.

Whatever our particular mental health response, the pandemic has required us to be more intentional about how we are taking care of ourselves. The old rhythms of self-care have needed adjustment. For myself, I used to get at least basic exercise walking to the bus and back on my daily commute; now that I work primarily from home, I can stand in the same place all day. Yesterday, I worked all day and evening right here at my desk without going anywhere. Regular rhythms of movement and connection have been disrupted, so this pandemic is requiring all of us to think more intentionally about what we need.

I pay attention to my physical health, but how do I stay attuned to my mental health?

We need to think about mental health in the same way we think about our physical health – I’ve had students say “I don’t have mental health” or “I’ve never dealt with mental health.” My response is that everyone has mental health. We all have mental health in the same way that we have physical health. And fortunately, there’s been quite a bit of stigma reduction around mental health over the past several years.

Science shows that our mental and physical health are closely intertwined – it's a false dichotomy to separate them out. So, we need to pay attention to both. We often know the basics of what to pay attention for in physical wellbeing – especially in this pandemic context, we are trained to notice symptoms and take care of our basic physical needs. And we know that even when we are physically healthy, our bodies have natural ebbs and flows – we get colds, we have tension in our shoulders, we feel tired and under the weather sometimes. In the same way, our mental health has natural ebbs and flows – some days we feel sad, anxious, or irritable, and that’s normal. Fortunately, our bodies were created to give us the information that we need about our physical and mental wellbeing, so when we are really paying attention, we are likely to notice concerns early (whether it’s a physical or mental difficulty) and care for ourselves more effectively. Early intervention helps. So, when we are struggling, the first step is to think “I’m having a hard time. How can I take care of myself?” If I have a cold, I load up on lotion tissues; if I’m thirsty, I get a cup of water. We automatically do these things for our bodies - it can work the same way with mental health. If I feel sad, I take time to notice (and maybe adjust) my thoughts, to do something I enjoy, to reach out to a friend. If I’m anxious, I pause and take a deep breath.

And just like with physical health, it’s often helpful with mental health to connect with professionals at times. This is particularly important when we are experiencing chronic or severe suffering, or when our ability to live our life is being negatively impacted. Whether our struggle is physical, mental, or both, professionals can provide wisdom, support, and effective intervention to help us feel better.

How does wearing a mask affect my mental health? And any advice?

Nothing replaces unmasked, face-to-face presence with each other. So, everyone should have at least a person or two that they are safely allowed to talk to without a mask on. Even if this is outside, six feet apart, unmasked, this is a step in the right direction.

Mask wearing presents a couple of challenges to our mental health. It’s harder to feel connected to the person you are talking to, especially if you’re meeting someone for the first time, and harder to read another’s emotions and meanings. Our decision at the counseling center to conduct sessions remotely rather than in-person with masks was primarily because of safety, but also because having sessions with masks on doesn’t allow for the reading of nonverbals during a therapy session. So much of our communication as humans is nonverbal, so to cut out so many nonverbals when talking about emotional material doesn’t allow people to get the same information from each other.

On the other hand, I’ve heard some people express relief at not having to worry about what their face looks like when they’re outside in public. There is less social pressure to look friendly, and that can feel nice. I think there’s also an acclimation to it that’s happening. But, if we don’t have any places that we can take off our masks, it can lead to a feeling of isolation as well.

The way we think about mask wearing can have a big impact on our resulting mental health. I think if we make the choice to view our masks as a way of caring for ourselves and for each other, a way of showing respect and honor by doing everything we can to keep each other alive ... if we can conceptualize the masks as acts of kindness and compassion (whatever our political ideologies and scientific theories about the subject)... that can lead to a better emotional experience while wearing a mask.

What is Calvin Unmasked, and what is the wisdom behind creating such a group at Calvin?

Calvin Unmasked is a moderated, anonymous, peer support app that encourages students within our campus community to share with each other and support one another. This falls under the umbrella of our Peer Listener Program, which has had a number of variations over the years - this is what we can offer in our current pandemic environment, and it is also a platform that students feel very comfortable with. The name Unmasked (created for the app before the pandemic) signifies the power of removing our emotional masks with one another.

Calvin Unmasked is moderated by a peer listener team - a group of students at Calvin who have been trainedand who are well-informed on the general wellness resources at Calvin. Members of this team take shifts moderating the app throughout each day, making sure each person who comes on gets a supportive response, that triggering content is flagged, that any harmful content is removed, and that proper referrals are made. The team meets weekly throughout the year to debrief their experiences and to receive ongoing support from the counseling center.

This kind of a program is important because so much of our wellness is based on mutual support. As mental health concerns rise and stigma decreases, we find that more non-professional mental health supports are needed for students. For some of us,the needed supports are going to be at this level - talking to a supportive friend or peer. And for some of us, professional treatment is also important. We want to provide the full range of mental health supports for students at Calvin, as much as we can.

One additional benefit of the Calvin Unmasked app is that it serves as an easy-access entry point for students who might otherwise feel intimidated about calling the counseling center. It’s not uncommon that a student struggling with a mental health or safety concern related to mental health feels fearful of burdening the counseling center or admitting that they are struggling. So, an anonymous peer app like this reduces barriers, creates opportunities for peer referrals, and can be a first step for a student toward needed treatment.

What are some tips for surviving isolation and quarantine?

Isolation and quarantine can be tough, and it’s okay to struggle. The main thing is connecting - having some kind of connection to the world outside of one’s room, even if it’s virtual. Engage in conversation, do mutual activities, share emotions – make sure that someone knows how you’re doing each day and that you have an opportunity to hear how others are doing as well.

Learn how to support someone in isolation or quarantine

Also, engage in some type of movement, inside or outside of your room (whatever is permissible). We have a tendency to get stuck in our heads, which is not good for mental health in the long-term. So getting out of our heads and into our bodies is important to feel grounded and whole. Care for your body (including eating food that you like and that is good for you), and stick to a regular sleep schedule. And it’s not just these routines of physical self-care that are helpful, but maintaining a general routine tends to support our mental wellness. Make sure that intentional self-care is part of that routine.

And, stay connected to the past and the future. Remember happy times, so maybe looking back at heartwarming photos and encouraging notes , and also looking forward to the future, remembering that this pandemic is temporary. People throughout history have weathered pandemics - we are not the first. Our ancestors have shown us the way. It’s important to keep that perspective.

For students, it’s also helpful to reach out to campus resources.There is an army of professionals on campus eager to support you, in places like the Center for Student Success, the Center for Counseling and Wellness, Campus Ministries, and a whole host of other wellness services like that. Asking for help is a sign of strength – don't be afraid to let us know what you need.

What’s one step I can take today if I’m just now starting to struggle with mental health?

For anyone who is just coming to that realization, I recommend starting with something like plugging into mindfulness practices online (you can find links to free guides at www.themindfulchristian.com) or connecting with others who are having similar experiences (either online or in person, whatever is available to you). Knowing we’re not alone is so helpful in our healing journey. Conducting a mental health screening with a counselor can be helpful too,just to get ideas about where to best get your mental health needs met. Again, we all have mental health, and we all have mental health needs – so caring intentionally for our mental health (as we do our physical health) makes a lot of sense. Oftentimes, even just one meeting with a counselor can be helpful.