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Students learn to cope with mental health during pandemic

For a university professor, journalism students are the focus of her mental health efforts during COVID-19

The day Jessica Davis* finally accepted her diagnosis of depression in the middle of last year, she cried hard at the end of her therapy session, feeling defeated. That was before she decided to look for the doctor in her college, who prescribed medication to help her deal with her symptoms. College was already hard enough without help. But then came COVID-19.

Like most college students, Davis had to adapt to online classes when campuses closed due to the pandemic. To add to the stress of college, quarantine made working from home even more challenging. For Davis, juggling school, raising two young kids, and working at home was a tough transition, on top of her already troubling situation.

“I was trying to focus on my goal of graduating college, but it was hard when just getting up in the morning was a challenge,” she said. “I knew I had to take care of myself but it’s difficult to find the time.”

When Fall classes began in August 2020, the journalism major was excited to start her senior year at Sacramento State University with a full schedule. What she didn’t expect were the mental health assignments that would also be a requirement for one of her classes.

Timi Poeppelman, a journalism professor at Sac State, always paid attention to mental health. In her 25 years of teaching, after working as a journalist for about 6 years, she has always tried to put different resources for students to think and talk about – such as counselors, connection with the college health center, and conversations about sex, drugs, and alcohol. She would also give extra credit points for attending events on mental health.

“We have a culture that doesn’t think about mental health. The word ‘mental health’ has been thought of as a disease,” she said.

Instead, Poeppelman argues that people talk about working out for physical health, it should be the same way for mental health.

“Journalists are like first responders, they see everything,” Poeppelman said. “The industry is not doing a good job of taking care [of it]. It’s not acceptable to talk about. There’s a misunderstanding, there’s a stigma around the issue. And also there is this thing in journalism that ‘if you can’t handle it, get out.’”

She decided to focus on journalists, after watching students and professionals burning out.

“It’s not a life they can sustain,” Poeppelman said. “In journalism there’s no down time. Students burn out, they just don’t want to do it anymore. They can’t see their families, they don't have time.”

For a profession who doesn't have a 9-5 work routine, things got even more stressful when the pandemic hit. For journalists already in the field, the COVID-19 brought added anxiety and depression. With most news covering the pandemic, the majority are suffering some degree of psychological distress, according to a survey.

Sara Nevis, a journalism major student at Sac State and already working as a photojournalist for about 2 years, relates how covering certain stories may have a negative emotional impact. She experienced that when covering a Black Lives Matter protest July 1 in Sacramento, that displayed a showcase with over 300 pictures of people of color killed by the police.

“I couldn’t look at the photos [of the victims], because if I did I wouldn’t be able to work, I would get too emotional,” she said, remembering a mother crying over the picture of her 16-year-old son killed by a cop. “So in those situations, you have to compartmentalize to get the work done.”

She took a step back from covering too many weekly protests after feeling so drained and emotional when getting home and trying to be a mother for her 7-year-old daughter.

“That’s the thing with journalism,” she said. “You have to know what you can and can’t handle.” Normally during the week before the finals, Sac State offers a de-stress week, bringing dogs to campus for students to pet, and offering activities, such as students making their own stress balls. With the campus closed, that was not an option.

“I was kind and lamenting,” said Poeppelman. “Now more than ever, students needed and wouldn’t be able to get that, so I decided to make my own.”

In the spring Poeppelman opened a module on Canvas where students had to do two things, such as connecting with someone or recording a video saying what they were thankful for. After getting positive feedback from students, she developed a whole program for her news reporting class for the fall semester. She based her decision on studies that show that people need a support group. So she divided the class into groups of three.

Students would check with each other weekly and send a short video reporting the group progress during that week. Individually, students also would send reports of their activity. Activities needed to be approved by the professor and done consistently for 30 days – based on studies that show people can create a habit if they do something for a month. Students could choose a variety of activities to do – from walking to painting or reading for fun. Even sleeping for 8 hours a day was an allowed activity. Jessica Davis chose to exercise, in hopes of gaining both better mental as well as physical health.

“We need something to help our mind. I wanted to bring a variety of things [for students] to try,” Poeppelman said. “You got to create a mental health toolbox, figuratively, and have a lot of options in there. Your habits get really baked in college, in your 20s. If I can have them incorporate these habits, hopefully, this will be something that is important for you.”

Poeppelman also aims to destigmatize mental health. She invited different guest speakers to her J130 class to talk about mental health and teach techniques, such as meditation, breathing exercises, and physical movements to do at a desk.

Nevis, the photographer, is also a student in Poeppelman's class and appreciates the program.

“I think it’s important that she’s doing that,” she said. “She’s making an environment where that’s ok to talk about it. The biggest thing for me was talking about the stigma of mental health.”

Kimberly Santos, another journalism major in Poeppelman’s class, said this semester has been like a rollercoaster and she is grateful for the time the professor puts into mental health.

“It prepares us to be physically and mentally strong for any situation that comes our way. It is okay to take a break from our devices and do something we enjoy,” she said. 4

According to several recent surveys, COVID-19 increased depression symptoms more than three times during the pandemic among U.S. adults. For college students, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders among other things, brought negative impact, with 71% of college students responding that they are dealing with stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, according to another survey.

Jed Tatsuiama, a doctor at the student health center at Sac State, says that a lot of complaints from students are about their moods and anxiety.

“Just the pandemic itself, in general, caused a lot of anxiety,” he said. “Our lifestyle has changed, our social interactions took impact that affects people’s mood.”

According to him, the pandemic is not the only culprit for mental health problems.

“We went through the fire, the poor air quality; people can’t go outside, can’t exercise, so now they are really stuck inside because they can’t breathe outside,” Tatsuiama said. “Then comes a lot of upset with police brutality. We also went through the election, and all we had to do it inside a box, and all without family interaction to process everything and mentally worn out it just worn on them.”

Tatsuiama recognizes the need to provide more education to health providers and staff as well as teachers and family members.

“Students in this generation are a lot more aware of their mental health than the previous generation,” he said. “We need to be aware of them to be more sensitive.”

Jessica Davis is still taking her medication for depression as the doctor prescribed but she also looks for other approaches to help her cope with her mental health.

“Having to take time to exercise as an assignment to class has forced me to take time to myself and feel better, both physically and mentally,” she said.

Tatsuiama would agree. He says these types of exercises can work, along with meditation, prayer, reading a book, or just going on a walk.

“I believe in the basics of good health,” he said. “That means eating healthy food, getting exercise, and also an adequate amount of sleep. If you don’t eat, your mind doesn’t work. A lot of students sacrifice sleep. Life is a struggle and it’s a good thing, it’s what keeps us motivated and strong, but we need to keep a balance and from there keep a structure and improve it.”

*Name has been changed for privacy

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