Building A Socially Distanced Support System In College

Distance learning. Zoom meetings. Face time chats. The reality is that we are living in a socially distanced world where physical presence is not as common as it used to be. I cannot help but wonder about all of the college freshman embarking on this next chapter in their life without physically being in classrooms and on campuses across the country. For many, college is an exciting time defined by an active social life. However, for some, the idea of making new friends in a new environment can be daunting.

While some college students did move on campus, many across the country stayed home with family to complete their semesters all online. So yes, they are not completely alone, but they still did not get that true college experience many of us adults look back on ever so fondly. And as adolescents, they need more social interaction than any other age group. How will this new crop of students find a way to not only survive, but thrive in college during COVID-19? Here are 5 ways college students can find their own virtual community this school year:

1. Find student organizations– Many student organizations on campus including major specific clubs and honor society’s have also taken their meetings and events online. I recently did a virtual workshop on Mindul Self-Compassion for an on campus organization at the local Orlando university called “Girl Up” that raises awareness for underprivileged womxn and advocates for gender equality. Greek organizations held recruitment events virtually this fall semester so that new members including incoming freshman had a chance to still join despite the pandemic. With a simple search on your school’s website, you should be able to find a list of all active student organizations to join. For example, the University of Central Florida’s list of student run organizations can be found here.

2. Connect with classmates– Typically online classes include discussion boards and ways for you to also see a list of everyone in your classes. It certainly takes some assertiveness and a bit of confidence to work up the courage to reach out, but you might be pleasantly surprised that other student’s are seeking new connections too! Try sending a fellow classmate a message with a question regarding the class to break the ice or an invite to study virtually or even in person if you feel comfortable meeting up.

3. Identify a mentor– Perhaps you know a family friend who is a bit older at your college or maybe you have met someone through a club or organization already that has qualities you admire and/or a good grasp on the college environment and culture. In Greek organizations, new members are typically given a “big” brother or sister who is an older member of the organization that takes a new member under their wing so to speak. A mentor is a great way to learn more about yourself, your major or career field interests and know that you always have someone to confide in.

4. Join a local cause- During these difficult times, it is more important than ever to find ways to help your community. Food banks and local animal shelters are always in need of help and volunteers. Philanthropies and non-profit organizations are not only a great place to meet peers with similar values and goals, but giving back can also help manage your mood and feel good. Volunteering and donating our precious time can bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives. If you are unsure where to start your search of finding the right local cause or volunteer opportunity for you, visit: https://www.volunteermatch.org/.

5. Reach out for support– If you find yourself really struggling this semester with distance learning or your mental health, do not hesitate to reach out to your professors or mental health professionals for support. Teachers and your college counselor center are there to help and can guide you towards the resources you need to truly thrive during your time in college. Remember that you are not only paying for your education, but all of the invaluable resources on your campus. Of course, if you find that your college counseling center is inundated with students, you can also try finding a local therapist through a variety of online directories including Mental Health Match and Open Path Collective. Many therapists can offer student rates and sliding scale options.

One of the biggest factors impacting our mental wellness is having a support system. As humans, we naturally desire connection and belonging. One of my favorite Brené Brown quotes says, “We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” So the truth of the matter is that we are not built to self-isolate in our homes and tiny apartments for days, weeks or months at a time. While we can continue to hold onto hope that things will “go back to normal” in 2021, it is important for us to continue to cultivate new connections and nurture current relationships right now in this “new normal” of 2020.

  • Amanda Vargo is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Yoga Teacher in Oviedo, Florida. She specializes in working with teens and young adults with anxiety, stress, depression, life transitions and low self-esteem.

3 Ways College Impacts Students’ Mental Health

Picture this: you have been up all night studying for a Biology exam that is tomorrow at 9 a.m. After class you have to jet off to your internship all day before heading to your sorority philanthropy event later that evening. When did you have time to sleep? Have you been able to sit down and eat healthy meals throughout the day or were you grabbing a snack here and there? On a scale from 0-10, how high is your stress level right now?

Even as adults, it is hard to juggle work, family, friends and self-care. Which is why being a young adult in college is even more challenging. College students are new to the whole #adulting thing and for good reason– they literally just graduated high school, left their friends and family and are out on their own for the very first time. It is no wonder that their mental health can suffer during this pivotal time in their life. To dive deeper into some of the most common ways college can impact students’ mental health, I chatted with colleague, Kelsey Ryan who currently works at the University of Memphis. Here is what we came up with:

1. Lack of time management skills. Today, college students’ stress is at an all time high. They overload their schedules with classes, internships, part-time jobs to help pay for school, and join on-campus student organizations to beef up their resumes and meet new friends. This means their physical and mental wellness both take a huge hit. They fall into a vicious cycle of being so stressed that they do not get enough sleep, which then causes their grades to slip, which in return brings on even more stress and anxiety. They put so much pressure on themselves to succeed and juggle so many responsibilities, but lack the time and stress management skills to find a healthy balance in their lives.

2. Barriers to support and resources. What happens when things do get to a breaking point and they realize the stress, anxiety or depression is no longer manageable? Unfortunately, many college students are unsure of where to even begin to find the community resources available to them. Yes, colleges and universities offer individual and group counseling sessions at their counseling centers on campus. However, oftentimes they are booked out for several weeks and only offer a few sessions for free. Not to mention there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health and seeking support from a professional. The shame students feel about their mental health struggles often prevents them from reaching out for support when it first becomes a concern.

3. Searching for their identity in a new environment. College is a time for figuring out who you are and want to be as a person. College students get dropped off at their dorm and within minutes realize they have more independence than they know what to do with. This leads to experimenting with their values, morals, and beliefs. They may choose to engage in substance use or further explore their sexuality. For this reason, college students should look at their wellness from a holistic perspective. To remember that not only is their mental and physical health important, but all areas of their life including social, spirtual and even financial.

If you or a loved one is a college student struggling with mental health concerns such as overwhelming stress, anxiety or depression, here are a few ways to help navigate this challenging time:

  1. Learn and practice time management skills
  2. Implement stress management and healthy coping skills that do not involve drugs or alcohol
  3. Prioritize self-care and physical wellness such as sleep hygiene, exercise and healthy eating habits
  4. Maintain a healthy support system made up of friends and family
  5. Reach out to a mental health professional when extra support is needed

Amanda Vargo is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Yoga Teacher in Oviedo, Florida. She specializes in working with teens and young adults with anxiety, stress, depression, life transitions and low self-esteem.

A Journey Towards Healing After Loss

Loss looks different for everyone and grieving a loss is as unique as our DNA. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Here in 2020, we are all collectively grieving so much– a sense of normalcy, routine, vacations, income, lives taken by COVID-19 and police brutality. For couples, their hopes and dreams of getting married this year have been taken away. For teens and young adults, they have lost their graduation ceremonies, proms and expectations for what college was supposed to look like. For others, they are dealing with their own personal losses on top of what is going on in the world: death of a pet or loved one, divorce, miscarriage, and cancelled IVF cycles.

When there is already so much loss and grief in the world, it is easy to compare your own grief to that of others. To feel like your grief is not as big or important. But grief and loss are not a competition. Your grief is just as valid as someone else’s. So how do we embark on this journey to healing when the world is such a dark and heavy place?

It is important to note that I say journey because there is not an end goal or destination when it comes to grief. Most often, individuals learn how to carry their grief with them every day. It does not simply go away. Loss is something you learn to live with. As Glennon Doyle says in her book Untamed, “Grief is a cocoon from which we emerge new.” Therefore the healing journey must be one that helps you not only pick up the pieces, but accept that they will look completely different than they did before.

Support and Communication– Having a support system and communicating with them is key when grieving– because trust me, it is easy to feel like you are all alone on grief island. You really cannot have support without communication when it comes to grief. While your loved ones may want to be there for you, they might not know how. They are not mind-readers nor should you expect them to be. It is up to you to communicate your needs to them so they understand how to be of support. Because grief changes you, be prepared for relationships and friendships to also be forever changed after a loss. Some days you may need your space and some days you may want to talk for hours. Both are okay, but important times when you need to set boundaries and express your needs. You may also need a higher level of support than your friends and family can give you. In that case, find a local or online support group to connect with others who are grieving a similar loss or reach out to a therapist.

Reading– Books, articles, blogs and even others’ social media posts can help normalize what you are going through. If reading is not your thing, try listening to a podcast instead (I highly recommend Brené Brown’s podcast with David Kessler on Grief and Finding Meaning). Not only will you feel empowered from learning new information, but you will also feel less alone and isolated. Reading and listening to others’ stories may give you some practical tools for healing. It might even help you see that life will not stay this dark forever, even though it feels like it will.

Journaling– I do not mean your 5th grade diary kind of journaling. Sometimes journaling means writing in all caps how angry at the world you are. Sometimes it means writing down every adjective and emotion you are feeling. Sometimes it is writing a letter to the loved one you lost to feel more connected to them. No matter how you choose to journal, the important thing is that you get your feelings out. By writing out how you feel on paper, you can better process your thoughts and emotions. You may even feel less consumed by them.

Physical activity– Stress, grief, trauma and emotions all manifest in different parts of our bodies. Whether it is our neck, lower back, shoulders, hips, chest or abdomen, our body is always trying to tell us something about how we feel physically and emotionally. That is why it is so important to incorporate some form of physical movement into your day– to move around the stagnant energy in your body. I get it, when we are grieving we often do not feel like leaving the bed all day. Sometimes doing a few gentle stretches can make all the difference in the word. While I always recommend yoga, I know grief can make it almost impossible to want to connect with our body. This is especially true if the grief is related to a trauma or pregnancy loss. Take it slow, be gentle with yourself and do not set too high of expectations. If one day, you are not in the mood for yoga and you feel anger pulsing through your veins, go for a run instead. Get out the physical tension and energy building up in your body however feels right for you in the moment.

Feel your feelings– I saw an Instagram post recently that put this perfectly, “you can’t heal what you do not let yourself feel”. Maybe it is journaling, maybe it is screaming into a pillow or letting yourself cry. Feelings are for feeling and just like our bodies, they are trying to tell us important information. Don’t get me wrong, it is utterly uncomfortable to sit with emotions like anger, hurt, pain and grief. But without these difficult emotions, there would be no happiness and joy either. And just because you feel pain or grief, does not mean that you can’t also feel joy or peace.

If you find yourself grieving today, I challenge you to sit with your feelings for a few moments. Allow yourself to feel whatever your feeling. Breathe into them. Perhaps even meditate on them. Name the emotion. Acknowledge and accept that is how you are feeling– without judgement. Then show yourself some compassion because you are human. Suffering is a part of being human.

Lastly, remember that you are not alone.

— Amanda Vargo is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Yoga Teacher in Oviedo, Florida. She specializes in working with teens and young adults with anxiety, stress, depression, life transitions and low self-esteem. She offers individual therapy, virtual therapy and therapeutic yoga through her practice, Empowered Wellness.