Mentally fit in times of corona: calling and whatsapping with TiU’s health team
To remain fit during your home isolation, you only have to put on a YouTube-video and join an online workout. Is it just as simple to stay mentally healthy despite the restrictions of the coronavirus outbreak? Univers spoke to TiU’s student psychologists and social worker on stress amongst students, and mental health in times of crisis.
Perhaps you’ve tried it already: working out at home, in front of your laptop or phone screen. From famous sports players who share their daily work-out routine, to the recommendations of our own student Sports Center: there are plenty of online workouts that help you stay fit now that you are spending most of your time at home. Online you can also find a lot of do’s and don’ts on keeping courage in a time that is characterized by listening to online video lectures and spending evenings missing your friends.
The mental health care team of Tilburg University, too, shared a long list of tips and tricks to stay mentally healthy in this stressful time. It contains obvious tips, such as ‘make sure to sleep enough’, and ‘consume your vegetables and fruits’. But the page also addresses topics of loneliness, negative thoughts and behavior of procrastination. The main advice is to try to accept the circumstances and to distract yourself. You could do this by trying out several breathing exercises, listening to binaural beats whilst working, and by spending your time in a useful way – for example by learning a new language.
But what if, despite all the well-meant advice, you can’t manage to shift your mind from negative thoughts? Or if you feel more pressure than ever now there is an excess of time and possibilities?
“Some young people have no one to talk to”
TiU’s social worker Irma van den Brand and student psychologist Jos Haarbosch are there for you. Together with the team of mental health care workers, which includes two other student psychologists, the student deans and the university chaplaincy, they offer help to students coping with personal and study-related problems and try to prevent them from running into study difficulties.
No one to talk to
The corona crisis keeps the mental health care workers of Tilburg University busy. Van den Brand sees an increase of help requests that are related to coronavirus measures. “Seven out of then students who come to us for help are struggling with the new measures. Just the other week, I was in contact with a student from Germany who had a really hard time deciding whether she should stay in Tilburg during the corona outbreak or go back to her family and sit out the lockdown at home.”
“Of course, I don’t tell anyone what to do. But in my job, I see a lot of young people who do not have someone to talk to in difficult times or when things happen that are not too nice. There is no one there for them to brainstorm with, or to discuss their options. That is where I step in. Normally, I aid students who have financial problems, for example, or those who are going through a process of mourning. We talk about their options and what is best to do next. The process now, amidst the corona crisis, is not too different. But the questions are.”
One of the students supported by Van den Brand is a student who had to move back home. “He had to attend to a really though situation: his father is dying. Not of Covid-19, but his fragile physical state means the rest of the family has to be very cautious about avoiding the risk of getting infected. They cannot go out, not even for groceries, they cannot see other people. It is a very strict quarantine. To me, he can talk about his insecurities and his frustrations, even though he has to keep up his chin at home.”
Flexible and adaptive
Van den Brand helps students in four to five sessions, during which she offers a listening ear, practical aid and, from time to time, a referral to another mental health worker. The student psychologists offer training trajectories and up to three therapy sessions. “The amount of new registrations is steady,” is Haarbosch’s observation. “Students face the same problems as we do. The first couple of weeks of the measures were confusing, and all of our usual working and studying routines were broken. In the meantime, we have come to a situation in which we have to find a new and healthy rhythm. This is where the student psychologists play an important role. We update the page on TiU’s website, the page that contains tips and information on how to stay healthy.”
Haarbosch praises the flexibility of the students he is currently seeing. “After the generally confusing first days, they have been really adaptive to the changes in their therapies. For most of them, it only takes minutes to get used to a phone consultation. The larger part of the trajectories has been continued by phone.”
Group trainings and workshops, for example on performance anxiety and mindfulness, clearly cannot take place in their usual form. “Obviously, the big question is how long this all will take. We are thinking about creating a digital format for our workshops and training, just in case the whole situation takes a lot longer than we can foresee now.”
A lot of benefits
Working as an e-therapist has been a pleasant surprise for Haarbosch. “I see a lot of benefits in treating a student by phone. In this way, there is not a lot of distraction and that means we quickly get to the bottom of things. I find it easier to focus on the student’s problem or issue.” There is one inevitable downside to this practice. “Although it is easy for us and the students to adjust to this way of working, it is close to impossible to pick up non-verbal signs the students are sending. I now have to explicitly ask how there are feeling.”
“Picking up non-verbal signs is nearly impossible over the phone”
For Van den Brand, the new situation is not too hard either. “I now talk to the students through e-mail, phone and WhatsApp. Communicating with my students through WhatsApp is something I have been doing for years. In the past, some colleagues would be amazed or even shocked by that method. WhatsApp is so direct, and always ‘on’. But I guess the negative sides to digital communication have been overtaken by the current situation.”
Finally, some time off
Both mental health workers are aware of the complicated reality students face today, as the social and active activities of student life have disappeared. Anxiety, insecurities and stress are all part of it, but so are positive experiences. Van den Brand was struck by the improvement one of her students made. “This person was exhausted. He had a lot of stress because he took on way too much extracurricular and voluntary work. Social distancing cancelled most of that work. Last week, he sent me a message to tell me he finally realized how nice it is to have some time off now and then.”
Haarbosch has already started looking forward. “We were amazed by how easy it is to do most of our interventions by phone. Mindfulness and relaxations exercises are just as effective when done through a phone connection. We will definitely apply these findings and the benefits we discovered into our day-to-day practice when everything returns back to normal again.”