Student Mental Health and Self-Care in the Age of COVID-19

Even at the best of times, April is a tough month for post-secondary students. Many are writing exams, looking for a summer job, or waiting on grad school acceptances. Others are figuring out what they’ll do after graduation. COVID-19 has made all of this even more challenging, and students have a lot to worry about — where they’ll live, how they’ll pay their bills, and what universities and the job market will look like moving forward.


Making matters worse, experts have warned of an “echo pandemic” of mental illness in the coming months.[1] This isn’t surprising. Social isolation can lead to anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, changes in eating patterns, and increased drug and alcohol consumption.[2] These risks are even higher for those with a history of mental health issues.[3]


It’s become even more important for students to practice self-care and look after their mental health. The usual strategies still apply. Get enough sleep, exercise as much as you can, practice meditation or mindfulness, and do things you enjoy. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, so I’ve put together a few COVID-19-specific mental health strategies to help you cope, stay connected with others, and find help if you need it.

Go outside (but stay two metres away from others and avoid touching surfaces). Research shows that being outdoors, especially around nature, is good for your mental health.[4] Going for a walk can improve sleep quality and reduce stress and fatigue.[5] Even spending some time on your porch or balcony to read or study can be a good change of pace. It’s snowing as I write this (at the end of April?), so be sure to dress appropriately.


Have a routine. According to mental health experts, structure helps you feel in control of your life and gives you a sense of purpose.[6] OUSA’s home office has a daily morning Zoom call, which encourages me to wake up early, shower, eat breakfast, make coffee, and do everything I would have done a month ago (except commute into work). You don’t need a routine like this every day — I still sleep in on weekends — but having one most days can help things feel as normal as possible.


Talk to people/do group activities online. Thanks to Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Facebook, etc., it’s never been easier to see people without actually going outside (though you should still go outside, just not to see people). You can watch movies together, play games, do an exercise class, or start a virtual book club. Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation, and activities like these can help combat some of the loneliness that people are feeling right now.


Be mindful about checking the news. While it’s tempting to open Twitter every two minutes for COVID-19 updates and government announcements (I’ve been guilty of this), doing it too often can cause anxiety and distress. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you plan one or two times each day to read or watch the news, and that you seek information from trusted sources instead of people on Twitter or Facebook.[7] This could mean tuning into the Prime Minister’s daily update in the morning and watching a news network you trust in the evening.


Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You might want to use this time to do something you’ve been putting off, like writing a novel, getting in shape, or learning to play an instrument — and that’s great. But if you don’t, that’s good too. Don’t listen to anyone who says things like, “if you can’t get it done now, having enough time was never the issue.” Being in the middle of a health pandemic is stressful, and it’s hard to be productive when you’re stressed out. Do as much or as little as you want (or as you need to for school or work) and focus on taking care of yourself.


Allow yourself to not be 100% okay. These are weird, unsettling times. Standing in a six-feet-apart line to get into a grocery store feels uncomfortable. So does stepping off the sidewalk to keep your distance from someone walking by. It’s not easy worrying about your health and about how your friends and loved ones are doing. We don’t know what our lives will look like in a month, six months, or a year. If you feel anxious or sad or depressed, it’s understandable — which leads me to my next point.


If you need help, or even if you think you might need help, here are a couple of places you can turn:


Good2Talk is a free, confidential support service for post-secondary students in Ontario. It offers professional counselling services and referrals through text (GOOD2TALKON to 686868) or over the phone (1-866-925-5454). Their staff can help you with a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, academic stress, personal or family relationships, and loneliness.


If you’re more comfortable talking online, check out Big White Wall, a free peer-to-peer support network where you can talk to others who have experienced similar mental health issues. It’s moderated 24/7 by trained practitioners who keep the community safe and help facilitate healthy, productive discussion.


These resources aren’t intended for emergencies. If you or someone you know is at risk of harming themselves or others, please call 911.


A quick note before I sign off. There is no “one size fits all” model for self-care and mental health, especially during a health pandemic. The strategies in this post might work for some but not others, and that’s okay. Everyone’s situation is different. As we stay home, some students are experiencing gender-based violence or food insecurity; some have existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19; others are taking care of children or at-risk family members. Circumstances like these can increase the negative mental health effects of physical distancing and social isolation, so don’t worry if your way of coping looks different than someone else’s.


Remember to check in with friends and family as we wait this out. And in the meantime, continue to practice physical distancing. It protects vulnerable people, prevents the spread of COVID-19, and helps flatten the curve — and the sooner we do that, the sooner things can go back to normal.