It is something inevitable, yet unexpected. As we entered 2020, it was supposed to be a year of promise, a year of clear vision. Instead, a pandemic has taken over and ruled our lives both socially and professionally. The most impacted, albeit most ignored, is our brain. This abrupt change has impacted so much of who we are, including a cornerstone of way of being: our mental health.
As a graduate student, mental health is something that I think about a lot. Graduate school can often times feel like a heavy weight and a question with no answer. Mentally taxing, it often requires persistent work-life balance and acceptance of daily reminders of how far I have come since I joined these hallowed halls. But compounding the “routine” mental health challenges of graduate school with a global pandemic is definitely raising the bar for all of us. In writing this, I hope to share some strategies I have learned over the last few months that have worked for me and I encourage you to try them for yourself.
The first thing I noticed as I entered self-quarantine was my lack of a schedule. When I woke up, I took a short “commute” to my office downstairs, I ate in my dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I relaxed in a room right next to my office. At the end of the day, I went back upstairs just to start all over again the next day. Life has become repetitive and the computer is currently my best friend. Living this day after day led to me to the conclusion that I needed to come up with a schedule for myself. Creating a daily routine of to-do lists helps maintain a sense of normalcy. I created work to-dos and personal to-dos that would keep me busy enough without overwhelming me. The daily list of to-dos included simple things like watching a movie with family or baking a fun dessert with my wife. www.workplacementalhealth.org has become a great resource to remind me of great techniques to build my “new normal”. Keeping a schedule, staying connected with friends and family, and staying active are as important to me and are probably just as important to you.
When thinking about the pitfalls that working from home can bring, the two most important things to be aware of when dealing with mental health are burnout and isolation. Burnout is often caused by a lack of a separate working area from your personal space leading you to work longer hours each and every day. Furthermore, the lack of extracurricular activities also will lead you to work more and relax less. Isolation is a major contributor to burnout. Finding ways to interact with others becomes extremely important. Overall, work needs to be contained and in a specific area. Make a space that is comfortable, professional, and away from personal activities.
Social interactions are equally impacted by our “new normal,” often nonexistent and at best experienced through the lens of a computer. These “happy hours” only allow one person to talk at a time and unstable internet conditions leave some unpleasant frozen images of us for all to see. Before the pandemic hit, many of my friends would connect in a group setting, making communication easier and more dynamic. These group settings unfortunately don’t work as well virtually. While it may be difficult or less comfortable at first, I urge you to try a more intimate setting with one to two additional friends on a video call. This allows for a more in-depth conversation that is more personal and laid back. Suddenly, you will notice a sence of normalcy and it will feel like a hangout and less like a meeting. The best part of this transition is that the 1-on-1 call is typically a free resource these platforms offer.
Last, but not least, the stress and anxiety of a global pandemic will persist until a vaccine is finally developed. Worrying over friends and family members contracting the virus continue to saturate our daily thoughts. What we must remember is that the news is important in moderation. News can be extremely informative, but it also stressful and can trigger a sense of panic. Make sure to not read too much into every headline. Use your scientific mindset to read the facts and come up with an appropriate conclusion. In addition, be safe and practice good hygiene. We are in control of our own bodies. Stay at home orders are being lifted and in some cases, reimplemented, so please stay safe and healthy. Wash hands, regularly clean frequently used surfaces, wear masks, and practice social distancing.
All of this has created a challenging experience at the best of times, but when times are toughest, we must remember that we all need to take care of our brains first and foremost. As I write this, I don’t aim to alarm anyone, but instead I encourage you to take a deep breath and focus on yourself before helping others. Overall, just remember life moves on and we are stronger when we stick together and help each other out to the fullest extent. Once you have established ways for strengthening yourself, reach out to others and make sure they are doing okay. I encourage you to share techniques you have learned with those around you and feel free to add them to the comments section below. For additional information check the resources curated at the end of this post.
About the Author: Jarrod Cohen is a senior graduate student at Rutgers University under the direction of Dr. Joachim Kohn. His research interests include developing new polymeric materials for use in medical devices. Additionally, his passion is to help develop professional qualities in individuals and equip them with resources to succeed in their careers. One way he has worked towards this goal is through his involvement with the ACS Division of Professional Relations. His job there has been to help communicate PROF’s mission through newsletters and email communication as well as help develop programming for national meetings as a program co-chair.
Mental Health Resources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- American Psychiatric Association (APA)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Substance Abused and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)
- Call Centers and Hotlines If you are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety or depression, reach out for support.
- Crisis Text Line: Text 741741
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255