Mental Health Awareness Month: A College Student’s Guide to Navigating Remote Learning

A College Student’s Guide to Navigating Remote Learning While Protecting Your Mental Health

Written by Jennifer Bell

May 25, 2020

It’s no secret that we’re all experiencing extraordinary changes in our weekly school routines amidst the California shelter-in-place ordinances enacted in March.  While the vast majority of college students realize that these restrictions exist to keep the members of our communities safe, the sudden switch from in-person to online instruction has certainly taken its toll on our educational plans for the year. For many college students, finals season is just around the corner, and frankly it’s exhausting to be a full-time student during a pandemic.

While COVID-19 and shelter-in-place ordinances have sparked discussions about how remote learning can affect students who struggle with their mental health, I want to be perfectly clear that this is by no means a new or temporary concern. According to a 2013 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 41.6% of students surveyed presented concerns over anxiety, with 36.4% reporting concerns of depression.

With May being Mental Health Awareness month, I wanted to shine a light on college students who are struggling to find the motivation to continue their studies from home. Through my experience, I’ve found that many people who battle with their mental health are at their best when they are keeping themselves physically busy and feel that they are working towards a tangible goal. But with the current state of the world, many students are simply struggling to find the motivation to remain focused on their coursework with their newly added stresses and our overwhelming societal uncertainties. According to a 2020 article and survey conducted by Active Minds, around 91% of young people surveyed have experienced an increase in stress or anxiety since the start of this pandemic.

Many college students who live with depression, anxiety, or another serious mental health diagnosis find their strength through maintaining an active and bustling lifestyle. As displayed in the data from the same survey conducted by Active Minds, 74% of their 3,000 high school and university student participants reported increased challenges when it comes to maintaining a consistent schedule and routine since shelter-in-place began (That number was slightly higher for surveyed college students, coming in at 76%).

There’s something to be said about how waking up in the morning, showering, getting dressed, and commuting to school gives students a feeling of social accountability. Through losing these elements of their morning routine, many students who struggle with their mental health are feeling lost, hopeless, or a lack of control over their own destinies. As we’re all adjusting to our new normal — learning from the “comfort” of our homes — here are some words of advice for my fellow classmates.

1. Create a Set Class Schedule for Yourself.

This seems simple enough, but many students who rely on the structure of a daily routine seem to be scrambling to find the time to work and study for their classes. With the sudden shift to online learning, many college courses are being taught in an asynchronous format, which can be potentially problematic for those of us who rely on our consistent schedules to stay on top of our work. While this format allows for students to engage with their coursework regardless of time zones or physical distance from campus, it also creates the potential for students to feel entirely self-reliant when it comes to scheduling their week and keeping themselves accountable.

If you fall into the category of a student that needs a consistent schedule to thrive, my advice would be to use a day planner to set specific times to view virtual lectures, work on homework, and tend to any other obligations. If some, or all, of your courses no longer have mandatory meeting times, it may be helpful to stick to your original Spring schedule as the framework for your day. For example, if you signed up for an 11:00am-12:15pm in-person course that has now shifted to an online format, you can use this time each day to focus on your work for that particular class. If this isn’t possible due to the changing circumstances or new obligations, such as work or family commitments, create an ideal, custom schedule that allows enough time for you to complete your coursework at home.

This not only helps you better organize your time and energy, but allows for you to feel a sense of control over your learning experience.

2. Allow Yourself to Take Necessary Study Breaks.

While it is incredibly important to stay focused on your school work, allowing yourself the time to decompress after a long day of studying is essential to maintaining a healthy state of mind.

Taking a break allows you to rest and return to your work with fresh eyes. I would advise against pulling all-nighters, cramming all your school work into one day, or working for an entire day without taking a moment to breathe. Not only could this result in a decline in your overall performance, but it could have lasting consequences when it comes to your mental health.

According to an article written for Psychology Today, mindful breaks have the potential to increase your creativity, overall productivity, and long-term learning. The article by Psychology Today cites sources that support the idea that taking light breaks from work or studying can be beneficial to your overall mental health, including learning retention capabilities and improving your long-term memory.

Here are some ideas for mindful breaks based on my own experience:

  • Watching an episode of a TV show you love

  • Reading a chapter of a good book

  • Cooking a meal for yourself or loved ones

  • Listening to your favorite music

3. Don’t Shut Others Out.

There’s no question that these unpredictable times can make us feel extremely isolated and lonely. While I understand the inclination to put on a brave face and handle it alone, I urge you not to fall into this trap.

According to a 2019 article published by the American Psychological Association, the effects of excess loneliness and isolation can take a toll on your mental health. Some of the reported risks associated with this include increased depressive symptoms, a decrease in your overall quality of sleep, or even a decline in cardiovascular function.

For some of us, we are actively seeking connections from other people through utilizing the communicative technologies available to us such as Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, calling, or texting. However, there is a tendency for those with depression and anxiety to retreat into their independent spaces out of fear of burdening those around them, or due to a lack of interest in social interaction altogether.

While enjoying solitude is certainly necessary from time-to-time, it is also important not to neglect or forget about the positive relationships that bring you happiness and purpose.

Study groups are also valuable. If you don’t know anyone in your classes, send an email to your professor or teaching assistant to see if they can help you connect with other students to study with. If your college campus uses Canvas online, there is also a direct message function that allows you to reach out to students listed in your class. While this may be intimidating to some, you’d be surprised at how many of your classmates would appreciate having someone to help them with weekly assignments and studying for exams, too.

Finding a reliable community in a time of isolation can not only improve your overall quality of life, but it can, at times, be incredibly therapeutic.

4. Don’t Forget About Self-Care.

Too often, we overly concern ourselves with setting up a life for our future selves, rather than finding peace in the present. We often think about where we want to be someday, who we want to be, and where we see ourselves, eventually. Why is it that we, as students, more often than not, focus solely on the future so much so that we forget to love ourselves now?

Self-care can mean a lot of different things depending on who you ask. Here are some simple ways to start practicing healthy and mindful acts of self-indulgence:

  • Dedicate at least part of your day to doing something that brings you joy and fulfillment. This can be anything from getting creative and painting something new, to walking your dog around the neighborhood. Besides just being a student, continue to do the little things that make you happy.

  • Give yourself the breathing room to make mistakes and grow from them. Practicing self-kindness and removing negative self-talk from your daily life is the purest form of self-care there is. We all mess up sometimes, that’s what makes us human. Understand that life isn’t meant to be perfect, and stop holding yourself to standards that are unrealistically high.

  • Embrace what makes you inherently unique. Every person on Earth has something special to offer to those around them. We all possess individual talents and skills that we may not realize, but can contribute to the world in some way, shape, or form. While we all have flaws we can never erase, it’s important to see the bigger picture of who you are as a person. The moment we stop comparing ourselves to others and accept our entire package is when we achieve true freedom of thought.

While this global pandemic has certainly affected the mental health of students across the nation, I encourage you to never forget that your life is timeless and valuable. You possess certain qualities about you that are irreplaceable, and I hope that some of the tools and methods mentioned above can be beneficial to you on the remainder of your academic journey.

Author Bio: Jennifer Bell is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Irvine. She is the acting Executive Producer of Anteater TV and is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Media Studies in the School of Humanities as well as a minor in Political Science from the School of Social Sciences. She can be reached for Anteater TV related inquiries at eproducer@anteater.tv.

Special Thanks to Lori Sinanian.

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