Whether it’s your first year at the College or your fourth, being back on campus at the beginning of the academic year can be overwhelming. And that’s without a global pandemic. Add in the stress of the coronavirus – the anxieties, disappointments and uncertainties it has caused in nearly all aspects of life – and … well, it’s a lot to handle.

“It’s important to note that everyone is struggling – or has struggled – with all the changes that we have experienced over the past six months,” says Rachael McNamara, health educator in the College’s Counseling Center. “There’s just so much to process, and our brains just aren’t used to – or even made for – this kind of sustained stress. That’s why it’s so important to practice strategies that will help us cope with the negative and focus on the positive.”

Protecting mental health during covidOne positive for CofC students is that the College has all sorts of support in place to help them through their feelings.

“We recognize that this semester is particularly hard for students and we’ve implemented some new ways for them to not just seek out help, but to help themselves, as well,” says McNamara. “There are resources all over campus to help students navigate the challenges that we’re facing right now – and faculty members are also aware of their role in helping students feel connected and supported.”

One such faculty member is Heath Hoffmann, sociology and anthropology professor, who has created a self-care resource webpage for students.

“We can have a profound impact on the mental health of our students by merely acknowledging that life is hard, that college students are navigating real world problems and that there are resources available to help them navigate these challenges and their mental health problems,” says Hoffmann.

Margaret Hagood, professor of teacher education, agrees.

“Starting each class with some connection between head and heart calms and stimulates the vagus nerve, allowing everyone in the room to experience resonance,” she says. “This semester more than ever – in face-to-face and online teaching/learning contexts – we need to do this work for and with our students and for and with each other.”

Students can find that same kind of support outside of class, as well. Here are five more ways the College of Charleston is helping students keep their mental health in check this semester.

1. Creating a Proactive, Nurturing and Honest Environment

With Motivational Mondays hosted by the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, suicide prevention training provided by the Connect2Hope and a Words of Encouragement and Gratitude Wall in the Stern Center Lobby – the annual Weeks of Welcome (WOW) provides plenty of programming to promote students’ mental health and wellness during the first six weeks of the semester.

“The first six weeks of any semester set the tone for the rest of students’ experience at the College,” says Christine Workman, director of student life. “So, it is crucial that they get a sense that they belong and that they are supported in this community right from the beginning.”

Socially Close Physically Distant2. Encouraging Connections

As distance learning and social distancing have taught us, finding ways to stay connected is important – especially during stressful times. The College’s Check 5 Campaign encourages students to reconnect and create a network of support. Students start by reaching out to five people in the CofC community – someone they’ve known their whole time at CofC, someone they miss seeing around campus, someone they really value, someone they want to stay connected with and someone they’ve recently met – and, just like that, the conversations have started. Tips for starting conversations and for spreading the word about the Check 5 Campaign are shared on the CofC Mental Health Education Instagram page and the College of Charleston Mental Health Education Facebook page.

3. Offering Healthy Stress Reducers

Finding healthy ways to take control of our stress is crucial. One of those ways, of course, is through physical exercise, and Campus Recreation Services has students covered with group fitness classes and yoga classes – offered both in person and via Zoom, as well as recreation sports and open hours at the College’s two gyms.

In addition, the Office of Student Life offers virtual Weekly Wellness events at 4 p.m. every Wednesday through Oct. 21, 2020, that feature topics like healthy eating during stressful times and quick and easy relaxation techniques that can be done anywhere, by anyone. And, in October, the Division of Student Affairs will host Be Well: Be a Cougar, a series of programming focused on developing healthy habits that contribute to bringing peace and balance to the eight dimensions of health.

The Meditation Club offers virtual group meditations on Wednesdays at 12 p.m. For more information, students should log onto CougarConnect. Also coming up this semester:

  • Koru Mindfulness Course – Tuesdays at 3:05 p.m., starting Sept. 22: This virtual four-week class teaches mindfulness through the practice of meditation and specific skills that calm and focus the mind. Designed for first-time and experienced meditators alike, the course is for anyone who is feeling pressured and stressed, or just wants to learn a new skill that can enrich their life. For more information and to register, follow this link.
  • Mindfulness Meditation Retreat – October 16:  This three-hour guided meditation retreat focuses on using a variety of meditation styles to soothe and connect the mind and body. The retreat will be offered both online and in person, and registration is available through CougarConnect.

4. Empowering Students to Take Control

“We’re all feeling this sense of disappointment and grief right now – this is normal,” says McNamara. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you need counseling, but you do need to be aware of how you’re treating yourself: Is what I’m doing helpful or harmful to me? For example, is getting on social media or watching the news constantly helping you? You’ve got to hunt out the good and not the bad.”

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Exercises in gratitude, for example, not only help us refocus on the positive, but can actually have long-term effects on the way our brains process information. Every semester, McNamara leads several trainings and discussions to help students identify such coping strategies.

This semester, the College is also offering students free access to TAO (Therapy Assistance Online), a digital platform for therapy assistance that provides tools to help users understand and change their thought patterns. Although TAO Connect can be used as a supplement to therapy, it can also be used as a self-guided resource with personalized educational modules, assessments, interactive AI tools, a mindfulness library and practice logs and journals. Students can explore whatever topics they need, including how to calm their worries, how to let go, how to improve their mood and stress resilience. To log on and get started, students just need their CofC email address.

5. Providing Counseling Solutions and Therapy Resources

For students who need someone to talk to and don’t know where to turn, Students 4 Support (S4S) is a group of highly trained CofC student volunteers who can provide crisis response techniques in a confidential, nonjudgmental environment. This free service is available via text (M–TH, 12–9 p.m.; text “4support” to 839863). S4S hopes to resume in-person services soon. Students can get more information about S4S services – including its check-in service during the first six weeks of the semester – on its website.

The Counseling Center also provides clinical psychological care for students. More information is available on its website. To make an appointment, call 843.953.5640 or email counseling@cofc.edu. Telehealth options are available.