As several Washington colleges go remote again, expert offers tips on how to support students’ mental health

As the omicron variant surges and higher education institutions across Washington adjust plans — the University of Washington, Bellevue College and Seattle University have all announced intentions to begin winter courses remotely or delay the start of in-person classes —— Meghann Gerber is thinking a lot about the “here we go again” feeling that’s suddenly descending on college communities. 

That “feeling is almost like a memory of how hard it was initially,” when campuses closed, said Gerber, a clinical psychologist in Seattle and former head of a mental health clinic at the UW. “As educators, as parents, as friends and students themselves, the only thing we can do is say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, this is totally hard.’”

Gerber, who left the UW in 2020 to begin creating a mental health nonprofit that’s not yet up and running, spoke with The Seattle Times this week about how academic institutions, parents and loved ones can support college students during this next phase of the pandemic.

This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Some students are feeling a sense of déjà vu as they begin another quarter or semester remotely. Many remember the feeling of lost social connection that accompanied lockdown early in the pandemic. What would you tell students who are anxious or worried about returning to remote learning?

Anxiety in response to this development is totally normal. And also, that doesn’t necessarily make it easier or make it go away. 

There are a lot of things about what we’ve also learned from this experience about what works and what doesn’t work. A lot of those early days of the pandemic were just doing trial and error.  

For example, if you [are learning remotely and] can watch the lecture at any time, what is the best time of day for you to take in information? It might not be when that class is scheduled. For students with learning disabilities or ADHD, that can be a game changer to be able to access their educational materials in both a time and place that’s more supportive to their learning. 

What have we learned about how professors and other academic staff can remotely support students who they notice are struggling emotionally? 

I’m thinking of some of the practices I learned from workplaces. Because it’s so much harder to get a sense of where people are at mentally and emotionally, [some workplaces have] started devoting the first 10 to 15 minutes of a team meeting to just checking in with people. How are we doing, where are we at? I always think of how professors or teaching assistants or even administrators [could] do more to build in an acknowledgment that students have emotional lives. Whether that be making more room for small group discussions, or [conversations in] breakout rooms.

Many years ago there was a really profound thing a [professor did]. They put a cover sheet on an exam, and the cover sheet just said, “Before you start this exam, I want you to pause, take a deep breath and remind you that you are not your grade.” It was such a minimal intervention. But it had a profound impact on these students. I think about things like that. Even just faculty acknowledging what students might be going through, or creating spaces to just check in with each other [can make a difference]. 

Students and academic staff had a moment of normalcy as classes went in person during the fall semester. They might be feeling whiplash right now. 

One concern I’ve had is as restrictions begin to ease and we have more things available in person, there might be a belief that [you can] snap your fingers, and go back to business as usual. What we know about how mental health works, and how humans survive really challenging circumstances, is while things are unpredictable, you’re just holding it together. You go into survival mode.

A surge of mental health issues might come after the surge of COVID cases. I think that’s really important for people who work with students, and support students, to keep in mind. And it’s important for students themselves to keep in mind.

With the rise in omicron cases in Washington, some students are again panicking about catching the coronavirus. What coping strategies would you suggest?

There is this balancing act we’re asking ourselves to do: how can we be aware and mindful that this is real, while also not getting mired in the risk so that we’re not able to access other parts of our life that would actually help us be resilient. It’s super important during times that are scary, [that are] high stress, that are challenging us in multiple domains, to make time for enjoyable experiences. And be super intentional about giving yourself time for recuperation and recovery.

What signs or risk factors should parents or friends look out for if they’re worried about a loved one’s well-being or safety? 

This is a question I certainly got a lot in pre-pandemic times, too. When you notice a marked change in someone’s behavior, that is probably the best indicator something is going on with them. If someone is withdrawing, if their performance tanks, something’s going on. Lean in. Find out how you can help support [them]. The most useful tool we have is a line of communication. 

It’s hard to find a therapist right now, no matter who you are. What resources would you recommend for college students who are struggling to find professional help?

Peer support resources might be an easier ask than professional resources. There are a lot of different peer support programs at different institutions. They tend to be run either through the health center or health promotion office. 

If you do have a friend or someone close to you who you do feel comfortable talking to, sometimes that’s a good person to help enlist to take some of those actions that are really hard to do when you’re struggling. If you are super depressed and someone gives you a list of 20 therapists to call and see if someone has an opening, that’s a totally unrealistic thing (to accomplish). But that’s a really concrete task that someone who cares about you, who wants you to get connected, could help you do. 

More mental health resources for college students in Washington:

Having trouble finding a therapist in the Seattle area? Here are some tips

Hitting roadblocks while looking for a therapist? Here are some additional options

Mapping mental health care in Washington: A look at how the system works, and its gaps

Seattle-area youth created this guide to connect teens to multicultural mental health care