Don’t zoom through your mental health

Genevieve Vogel, Feature Reporter

Students are constantly facing mental health challenges, but now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they must also attempt to continue their education online.

Previously published in “Viva la remote revolución: students and faculty wrestle with online learning, students and professors are well aware of the differences between in-person and online learning. Whitman’s Counseling Center has dedicated a section of their website for “Coronavirus Mental Health Resources” and the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) have reached out to offer further support in a newsletter titled Tips for Distanced Learning.

Mental health is something that everyone must contend with, not just those who are seeking treatment. It is important in times of need to be reminded of the ways in which we can find and give support.

“Just working from home so much, it can be hard to separate work time from other time,” Zoe Brown said, a senior and president of the Mental Health Awareness Club. The club is an on-campus subset of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).

She stressed the importance of intentionality when dealing with mental health, such as making time to do fun things with housemates. She takes her advice into account when leading bi-weekly meetings, during which they discuss how to decrease stigma and increase advocacy for mental health issues. The central goal of the club is to be a supportive space to discuss mental health.

Illustration by Anika Vucicevic.

They have had their own conversations about how online learning is affecting mental health. 

“Some people who have never struggled with mental health kinda are for the first time,” Brown said.

Club members have found that their bi-weekly meetings are helpful to de-stress and to participate in relaxing activities — such as coloring — over Zoom. They are also planning to host a variety of events this fall. They have already posted a recording of a webinar from this spring on their Instagram (@mhacwhitman) called How Figuring Out What is Most Important Can Help Us Navigate the Pandemic.

Senior Ben Hickman also discussed his experiences with mental health.

“I personally have a harder time connecting emotionally over zoom,” Ben Hickman said.

Hickman also understands the professorial perspective because of his experience guiding Peer Listeners training. Peer Listeners conducts training sessions every semester on how to be a better resource for people who are in crisis or managing a mental health situation.

“Remaining engaged and making things exciting and interesting is more difficult,” Hickman said.

In their training, Peer Listeners focus on active listening as a managing tool. 

“[Active listening is a] method of verbal and nonverbal communication that builds understanding for the listener and the person who is speaking,” Hickman said.

However, active listening looks vastly different in online classes. On Zoom, the audio delay can interrupt the natural flow of conversations and negatively affect the quality of engagement between students, their peers and professors. Eye contact is also thrown off. We dart between our own cameras and that of our peers.

Consequently, cutting people off, although accidental, can have a large effect on connection. There is also the tendency in Zoom to get distracted by outside factors, which is made more obvious by the line up of faces on the screen. In their Peer Listeners training, they also stress the importance of being in a private space when talking to someone who is managing a mental health crisis.

A few tips Hickman recommends are leaning into the camera, avoiding distraction, and making verbal affirmations like “I understand” or “mhm.”

For some students, online learning may not be as compatible with their mental health status as others, and getting help is always okay. Due to state laws, the counseling center can only provide students located in Washington state with online therapy. However, they can do referrals and help students understand what resources are available to them through their insurance.

Dr. Rae Chresfield, the Associate Dean of Health and Wellness, explained that health needs and the ability to address those needs have shifted. The number of students who able to walk into the center has obviously decreased because of the pandemic. She also spoke about the stigma that still surrounds mental health and serves as a barrier that discourages people from reaching out.

“People feel like ‘I should be able to handle this, I should not be overwhelmed, I should know what to do,’  because that stigma was already there,” Dr. Chresfield said.

Dr. Chresfield has already conducted workshops with faculty to address work-life balance and also how to address concerns in virtual classrooms. She has kept faculty and staff informed about when to reach out to the Care Team, which processes student care reports. She is excited about the conversations that she is having with the Wellness Committee about starting community-wide initiatives. 

A subject she highlighted was that knowing how to help yourself first makes you a better resource for someone else. The baseline aspects of sleep, exercise, water, connection, friendship and community are fundamental. In conjunction with that, you should pay attention to your own individual needs.

“Asking for a hug if you need it. Someone might just need validation and reassurance. Finding ways to really speak to what you need,” Dr. Chresield said. 

On the flip side, boundaries are still important. “Sometimes,” she explained, “it is healthier to tell someone looking for reassurance to wait until you are better able to be present. Then, when talking to friends, ask what they need so that it is a bidirectional conversation. Asking questions like ‘do you want me to listen?’ or ‘do you want suggestions?’ can be helpful.”

“I think often people try to fix, and sometimes that’s not what a person wants. They just want someone to listen,” said Dr. Chresfield.

If you need help, you can contact the Counseling Center at 509-527-5195, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to schedule appointments. Dr. Chresfield can also be contacted directly at [email protected].

Online learning often does not organically provide the fundamental needs for mental health. From maintaining mental health on a daily basis, to actively planning recuperation, to reaching out for help — all are valid ways to navigate mental health while learning online.

“It’s a weird mixture between wanting to stop focusing on it and to get back to normal, but then I think the reality is, that it is not back to normal. Obviously, we are doing Zoom classes,” Zoe Brown said.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and seeking immediate help, contact one of the following:

911 or Campus Safety (509) 527- 5777

TEXT “HOME to 741741

LGBTQIA+ Students TEXT “START” to 678678


 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Walla Walla Crisis Response Services: (509) 524-2999

Trevor Lifeline: (866) 488-7386