Being a Student During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Part 2, with Hannah Brinser and President Satterlee

Nov 19, 2020

Last week, Mind Tap explored the challenge of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, Scott continues his exploration of this topic, speaking to Hannah Brinser a doctoral student in the Counselor Education and Counseling program and Kevin Satterlee, the President of Idaho State University. 

Credit Mind Tap's Scott Greeves and President Satterlee

Last week on Mind Tap, I spoke with Emma Watts, a remarkable ISU freshman who has collaborated on a mental health guidebook called Mind Matters. Mind Matters provides a comprehensive overview of mental health concerns in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has a focus on students and teachers.
Students may be particularly susceptible to mental health challenges during the pandemic because they are away from home, away from their normal support networks, and may feel a sense of social isolation. And of course, this is not helped by a continued, but necessary, transition to online learning.

This week on Mind Tap, I continue my exploration of what it’s like to be a student during the COVID-19 pandemic. Later in the episode, I get the chance to speak to ISU president, Kevin Satterlee, about what challenges ISU students face, the problem of social isolation, the question of online learning, and the Universities Covid-19 response. But first, to gain a clinical perspective, I speak to Hannah Brinser, a doctoral student in the Counselor Education and Counseling program and find out what more students can do to promote their own mental wellbeing.

I started by asking Hannah, what is the major challenges to student mental health during the pandemic?
“I think social isolation is the biggest issue that we face and I think that is what is causing all of these other mental health symptoms to be exacerbated. Mental health symptoms were always there, but COVID-19 and the pandemic has made this so much worse in many ways”.

As Hannah mentioned, social isolation is a real challenge for students. In simple terms, we can suffer from the effects of social isolation when we are not able to mix and interact with other people. A scientific study, published in the journal of Psychiatry Research, reported that college student’s mental health was correlated with their level of social interactions. The study also found that students who live away from home, or have family or friends infected with COVID-19, reported higher levels of anxiety and depression. I asked Hannah about this.

“None of this is normal, none of this okay and it is hard. In society and academia, we expect things to carry on as normal but this is just impossible”. 

Hannah is a specialist in grief and loss. And that is a crucial subject right now. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19. However, Hannah explains that grief is subjective to each us and it can be experienced without losing somebody. I asked Hannah what grief means during this uncertain time.

“Know that your reaction is normal and valid, everybody copes differently, some isolated, some cling on to others, whatever your reaction is, it’s normal. You don’t have to have lost somebody to be feeling grief, this pandemic has triggered these feelings for a lot of people and know your reaction is valid. Don’t minimize your grief, although you may not have lost somebody, don’t compare yourself to others. There is a researcher in the area of grief and loss called David Kessler, he said that the worst loss is always your own, and I think that holds so true to COVID-19. If you have lost a son, a mother, a friend, or even somebody in your neighborhood, or didn’t get to go to your prom, the worst loss is always your own.”

Whilst students can be independent and socially responsible during the pandemic, their day-to-day activities are, at least in part, influenced by the decisions taken by the University administration. For example, the University, or even individual professors, can choose to either hold their classes in-person or online. The University has a responsibly and duty of care for its students, staff and faculty, to respond and react to the ever evolving conditions of this pandemic. So who better to discuss this with, than ISU President, Kevin Satterlee.

“The issue of mental health for college students is not new, it’s something we need to deal with, but the pandemic has added this new level, which is a loss of human connection. We have to talk about the fact that we are a community, we have to get through this together, students, faculty and staff, and talk about and maintain that human connection. We have to intentional about our relationships, those things that would normally grow organically; we have to be intentional about. Reaching out to people and asking how are they doing, I think I have asked that question to more people in the last six months than I ever have before”.

President Satterlee acknowledged that the issue of social isolation is a challenge for student right now. So I asked him, does the University have a responsibility to tackle this problem and provide help for students?
“I believe the University has an inherent responsibility for the mental health of our students. When we talk about education, it’s not just about what you learn about in the classroom, we are trying to nurture whole people and be what we need people to be in society. A big part of that is people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I continued by asking what additional steps the university is taking to respond to the elevated threat to students mental health presented by pandemic. 

“We have tried to add some resources to our counselling center make it visible and talk about those things. But I think it goes beyond just counselling, it’s everywhere, it’s about interactions people are having all over campus. It’s in the way somebody interacts with a financial aid councilor, the way somebody interacts with anybody on the ISU campus. We all have to be mindful of mental health and that we are all in this together. It’s that sense of community that allows are society to move forward. Mental health can no longer be the thing that has a stigma.”

But as the number of covid-19 cases rise, we have seen an increasing transition to online learning. I asked President Satterlee if he believes we can incorporate the conversation on mental health into the online learning context  or if this something that should be left to the experts at counselling and testing. 
“I think it’s about how we integrate it into our whole educational product, I would like it built into everything that we. I would encourage every faculty member to be accommodating but recognize that not all of the faculty will be trained for this. So you start with awareness, make sure that they have the education to help students and guide them to where they need to go. We start with awareness and resources, and eventually we can work this into a broader picture”.

Thank you very much to my guests this week. Next week, I conclude this mini-three part series on being a student during the pandemic, where we hear more from President Satterlee, and speak to Erin Miller, an ISU counselling student and Dr Ryan Manwaring, a clinical psycho-pharmacologist. Join me, Scott Greeves, for Mind Tap, every Friday morning at 7.35am