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Being intentional: Mental health warning signs

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Social distancing is starting to affect student's mental health in negative ways that psychologists are only starting to realize. 

It’s been four weeks since socially-distanced school started, and it feels like it’s been four months.

College is overwhelming. This causes students to overlook things in their personal lives. Especially when it comes to noticing mental health warning signs in others and themselves.

Dr. Joseph Dunnigan, Coordinator for Student Counseling Services at Oklahoma State University, said there are many warning signs depending on the individual. 

Broadly, these signs can include abnormal or extreme changes in behavior and emotional expressions. They can also be things not normally associated with warning signs, such as declarations of irritation, sadness, confusion and if someone is unkempt or messy.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major shift in how universities function. With most meetings held online rather than in person, students feel a lessened sense of community as there’s more isolation than usual.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, stressors are the same for some students, but many are different. Not only are students dealing with stepping into a new phase of life and financial burdens but also a general lack of communication because of the pandemic.

Dunnigan said whether over social media, video chat or safely meeting in person, social-distancing causes students to be more intentional about how and if they interact with other people.

“I think it’s important to do everything you can to stay connected to others,” Dunnigan said. “Not just chit-chatting about unimportant things but really asking ‘How are you?’ or ‘Are you managing well?’ or ‘Are you having any stressors?’ and ‘Are there any things about this that are difficult for you?’ So, really not being afraid to ask some of those questions.”

Reaching out to someone may seem like it takes more effort now, but conversations about someone’s well-being could be lifesaving. Dunnigan said communication about mental health normalizes and reduces the stigma of struggling with self-harm or thoughts of suicide

When a person is in or finds someone else in mental distress, there is a community of people and resources to help. 

“Be willing to offer support and help to that person, but then don’t feel like you have to deal with this alone,” Dunnigan said. “It’s very important to bring others in.”

Having other people help does not always mean going to therapy. Depending on the situation or person, reaching out to members of a religious community, friends and family can help foster better mental health and overall well-being.