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This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic rise in mental health issues. Students are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety while also struggling to cope with new ways of learning and feeling connected to others. 

Mark Sanders, a therapist and Director of Substance Abuse Services at St. Raphael Counseling, has seen a dramatic rise in mental health issues since COVID-19 began. As a therapist for 20 years, Sanders said many of his patients are dealing with situational depression or anxiety brought on by COVID-19. 

“Essentially all of them are struggling either with the lack of control they have over the situation, the uncertainty (especially around job loss, what their businesses/schools will look like), as well as grief about all of the losses that 2020 has brought about,” said Sanders.  “Stress, anxiety, and depression are unbelievably high right now, and the social isolation that many people feel has exacerbated these issues.”

If you’ve been suffering from anxiety and depression, here are some ways to improve your mental health and stay strong this year.

  1. Eat healthy. Attaining a healthy diet comes with a variety of benefits, such as a boost in your mood and energy level, improved memory, and better overall brain function. Diets containing vegetables, fruit, and whole grains have been linked to a decrease in symptoms of depression and fatigue. Resist the urge to binge eat or snack on unhealthy foods and try to make healthier food choices.
  2. Get plenty of sleep. A lack of sleep may leave you feeling tired, unfocused, and overwhelmed. When you lack good sleep, your body is not able to produce enough serotonin and dopamine to keep stress, anxiety, and depression at bay. For better sleep, turn off all tech devices. Lights from a cell phone, computer, or television trigger your mind to stay awake, making it harder for you to fall asleep.
  3. Be active. Regular exercise, such as walking, jogging, swimming, and cycling, has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve mood and blood circulation. Make a commitment to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to maintain clarity and focus.
  4. Build a strong social support network. Reaching out to others can help you overcome feelings of isolation. Your support network can include friends, family members, neighbors, professors, resident advisors, your school counselor, and anyone else you feel can help you solve a problem. Stay in touch with those in your network and help them feel supported by being an active member of theirs.
  5. Engage in hobbies. Whether you enjoy painting, hiking in the mountains, reading a book, or fishing, take time to step away from the demands of your busy life and focus on a hobby or activity you enjoy. Doing so may help you hit the refresh button, providing you with clarity, calmness, and a much-needed break.
  6. Disconnect from negativity. “Be careful with engaging in negative responses to the stress of today,” said Sanders. Since mid-March, television viewing and video game usage has increased dramatically, leading to weight gain and depression. “When stressed out, we often engage in negative behaviors such as eating too much, too much screen time/tv, possibly alcohol or other drug use.” Limiting exposure to television and the news can help decrease anxiety.
  7. Volunteer when possible. With a busy school schedule, you may feel as though you won’t have much time for volunteering, however many organizations offer flexible opportunities to volunteer. While social distancing protocols vary by state, there are still a number of no-exposure or low-exposure ways to give back. Find a local animal shelter and help take dogs for a walk. Organize a food drive with other students at your university and drop off your donations at a local food bank. Coordinate a local blood drive with students at your school or college. The opportunities are endless.
  8. Reward yourself. Recognizing your value and worth, reaching your goals, and accomplishing difficult tasks are just a few of the things that prove that you are doing a great job. Make sure you acknowledge your accomplishments along the way and reward yourself for all your hard work! Feeling proud and confident about your progress can help you feel excited to continue your college journey.
  9. Be grateful. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it can be difficult to feel gratitude. Document things you are grateful for in a journal and try to add a new item every week. It doesn’t have to be something big. Perhaps it’s someone you are happy to have in your life or something nice someone said to you. When you feel stress building up, read your journal and focus on the positive things in your life. People who regularly express gratitude for the positive things in their life are shown to be happier overall, leading to lower rates of stress and depression.

Without actively focusing on ways to de-stress, Sanders foresees an increase in the amount of mental health issues. “As the stigma of mental health issues has decreased, more and more people of younger generations (especially men) have found it more amenable to seek out therapy, so I’d have to say an increase is likely. The wildcard is of course, COVID and our societal responsewe are a social animal, and if things like the social isolation that has been ongoing for the past few months continues indefinitely, there will absolutely be major increases in depression and anxiety.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety or depression, there are resources available to help, such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Also check with your school counselors for a list of other resources available.

Related: Mental Health Resources for College Students On-Campus and Beyond