Experts explain how to handle mental health and trauma during COVID-19

Josh Peck, News Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions to lose their jobs, led to tens of thousands of tragic deaths and forced students to learn from laptops and Zoom meetings. Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2019 and in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020 concluded that college students’ mental health has been on the decline in the past decade and uncertainty stress was much more likely to result in mental disorders for students than study or life stress. As the country enters the most uncertain time in the lives of the majority of college students, student mental health is at a precarious point. 

The Paisano spoke with several trained clinical psychologists and a number of faculty in the areas of psychology and social work about how college students, including veterans and students with a history of trauma, can best maintain their mental health.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill is a UTSA faculty member in the psychology department with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She discussed the unique situation presented to students during the pandemic. 

“I suspect that it is going to be difficult for anyone to truly find balance during the Coronavirus crisis,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “Unlike more traditional crises we don’t know where this will end, and you can’t leave the disaster zone to go somewhere safer, and we don’t know when the threat will end.”

Mary McNaughton-Cassill is a psychology professor at UTSA and a trained clinical psychologist.

Although the crisis students are currently facing is an incredibly challenging one, McNaughton-Cassill said there are still ways to find balance.

“Maybe spending some time figuring out what your priorities are, and what you can let go for now will help,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “Filling in the gaps with exercise, relaxation, or mindfulness techniques, instead of social media and Netflix might also help.”

The switch to online learning has presented a significant struggle for a large number of students, and McNaughton-Cassill addressed how she and other faculty are trying to be of service to students.

“The Provost has asked faculty to be mindful of the stress our students are experiencing, and the Credit/No Credit option is meant to give students a way to maintain the GPA they had coming into this semester,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “I have opted to allow my students this choice, but also think that is important for people to talk to their academic advisor about whether the choice makes sense for them in light of their major, and future goals.”

McNaughton-Cassill also suggested that students create a schedule to avoid irregular sleep and study patterns but to make sure it is not overambitious. 

In 2019, 15% of the student population at UTSA was part of the military community. McNaughton-Cassill discussed the unique challenges the pandemic could be presented to the military community at UTSA.

“During disasters and crises both Active Duty and Reserve Service Members may also be asked to perform emergency services which can interfere with their academic progress,” McNaughton-Cassill said. 

Sandra Morissette is a clinical psychology professor at UTSA and the director of Trauma Health Research in Veterans’ Experiences (THRIVE) Laboratory, a psychology research lab at UTSA that studies veterans and active duty service members. She expressed her view about how the military community might be handling the pandemic.

Veterans are generally well trained to handle stressful situations and crises, and have remarkable levels of resilience,” Morissette said. “Thus, I would think that most are coping with this public health crisis at least as well as, if not better, than civilians who are not accustomed to handling such stress.”

Morissette said that although veterans and service members who have mental health disorders such as PTSD are in the significant minority of the military community, they are likely to have a far different experience than other service members during this pandemic. 

Sandra Morissette is the director of the Trauma Health Research in Veterans’ Experiences (THRIVE) Laboratory and a psychology professor at UTSA.

As with anyone, these conditions can make coping with a crisis much harder, particularly during shelter-in-place orders, which can lead to an increased sense of isolation and feelings of loneliness,” Morissette said. “This can be especially challenging for veterans who are often focused on helping and serving others (country before self), and it is important for them (and everyone) not only to receive social support but to feel a sense of value by providing social support to others.”

To cope with the situation, Morissette said that it is important to recognize feelings of stress or anxiety, focus on what you value most and reach out to support systems. She also said that the military community should utilize UTSA’s Veterans and Military Affairs Office for a number of different support services. 

Another community that may be struggling with the extraordinary circumstances of this crisis are students with a history of trauma. A group of researchers and faculty members from across Texas who specialize in interpersonal trauma gave their input. Jeff Temple is the director for the Center for Violence Prevention, a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and a licensed psychologist; Heidi Rueda is a professor of social work at UTSA; Monica Yndo is a professor of psychology at Concordia University Texas; and Rebecca Weston is a professor of psychology at UTSA and the associate dean of the Graduate School. 

The group said that, because most people are staying home and are generally having a higher stress level with fewer mechanisms for relief, this can increase the rate of interpersonal violence in the home, especially against women who have violent partners.

Jeff Temple is the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and a faculty member at the University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston.

“Strategies that may work to defuse conflicts become unavailable when everyone is required to stay in the home,” the group said. “This leads to conflict escalation and greater potential for physical violence.”

For those who have a history of interpersonal violence, being forced to stay in confined spaces with their abusers can lead to increased anxiety and depression and can even inhibit memory retainment, decision-making and emotional regulation according to the group of faculty and researchers. They suggested that those living through these situations use resources for information about and positive coping mechanisms for abuse from the World Health Organization for people living with partners who are or may become abusive during the pandemic, they recommended developing what is called a safety plan. This plan often includes strategies such as having coded messages with friends or family to indicate you are in danger and other methods to limit the potential for violence and defuse situations when needed.

Because so many families are spending a highly irregular amount of time together with few ways to get away, conflict is even more likely to occur. To counteract this, the group said it is best for individuals to recognize the uniquely stressful situation and the role it may be playing in any conflict and seek to defuse potential conflict situations with that in mind. 

If you are experiencing domestic violence or are concerned that your relationship may become violent, call the Domestic Violence Prevention Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If calling is not an option, they also offer a live chat service. If you are in a mental health crisis, call UTSA’s crisis helpline at 210-548-4140.