With the national emergency of the coronavirus pandemic, college students’ lives have been upended as they have been asked to leave campus and adjust to new living situations.

As the director of psychological services in McLean Hospital's College Mental Health Program (CMHP), Caitlin Nevins, PhD, and the CMHP team work with young adults to balance mental health with the demands of a college environment. Nevins and her colleagues help their patients adjust to complicated schedules, manage highly competitive environments, and navigate new social situations.

Nevins offered these tips for college students and their families to help them cope.

Validate the Experience

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a vacation from school or a way to get out of classes. This is a sudden change, and a loss—of community, graduation ceremonies, living environments, sporting events, etc. “While we encourage students to practice gratitude and to continue on, this situation is still a disruption,” said Nevins.

During this time, students can practice self-compassion for what they’re going through. Families can validate students’ feelings and keep the lines of communication open about what’s challenging and difficult about this change.

Maintain Structure as Much as Possible

In addition to switching from in-person classes to online learning, students have lost much of their routine. Because of this, it’s important to maintain a foundation of the coping skills.

Young woman holds tablet and backpack on tree lined path

Good sleep hygiene, nutrition, self-care, and activities outside of screen time are all part of this foundation. It’s essential to retain these practices as much as possible, particularly if students’ options are more limited in terms of what they can do and where they can go.

Make It Easy to Reach Out for Support

It’s important for students to be able to communicate if they don’t feel like themselves. Even if in-person supports may not be as readily available right now, many clinicians are able to provide assistance over the phone and through telehealth. “Students should have a low threshold for reaching out and exploring what resources their school can offer remotely,” Nevins suggested. “Living at home may not be ideal, or even feasible, for all students. Now is an important time to access supports.”

Be Mindful of Exposure to the News

It’s important to stay informed, but it’s also important to know when you need a pause from stressful news. Take a break to watch a movie, read, or joke with friends. Such practices will build resiliency for the stressful news that’s arriving with increasing frequency.

Students should be aware of how the news is making them feel and how much media they can consume. It can be helpful to step back and practice extra self-care at this time.

Stay Connected

This is an isolating experience for students as a whole. Consider moving beyond texting or social media to more interpersonal communications, such as phone or video calls with friends. Make plans to watch shows remotely together or participate in other digital forms of dorm activities. This is a time to get creative about maintaining vital social connections.

As Nevins said, “If anyone can do this, college students can: they’re probably the best generation to understand how to stay connected and be resilient in times like this.”

McLean’s College Mental Health Program (CMHP) helps college students with mental illnesses and adjustment issues live more productive lives to ensure the greatest probability of academic and personal success.

For more information, visit the CMHP webpage.

McLean Hospital has a continuous commitment to put people first in patient care, innovation and discovery, and shared knowledge related to mental health. In 2017 and 2018, it was named the #1 hospital for psychiatric care in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. McLean Hospital is the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a member of Partners HealthCare. For more information, please visit https://www.mcleanhospital.org/ or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.