The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 29th

'It is uncharted territory': Maintaining mental health during social distancing

DTH Photo Illustration. Social media applications have increased exponentially in the past decade, with new apps including Instagram, Snapchat, Vine (RIP), and, most recently, TikTok.
Buy Photos Students are encouraged to socially distance themselves, so staying connected with family and friends through apps is one way to remain connected.

As the University closes its residence halls and transitions to online classes, an increasing number of students are adjusting to life outside of campus, adopting quarantine and social distancing measures amid the spread of COVID-19. 

In an email to University employees on March 12, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stated that the University was advised by the UNC System Office to increase social distancing on UNC’s campus. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social distancing is one potential mitigation strategy to reduce transmission of COVID-19, and includes avoiding large gatherings of people and maintaining a distance of six feet from others.  

But abrupt social isolation may negatively impact some people’s mental health, said Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine. 

“It is completely normal for people to feel distressed and for people to feel a real sense of loss and frustration being yanked away from, if you will, their lives,” Meltzer-Brody said. “For college students, your life is being at school and for that to change on a dime and without notice is going to be distressing.”

Meltzer-Brody noted that the general uncertainty surrounding the virus and state of the world can be anxiety-provoking, particularly for younger generations who may have not encountered a global pandemic of this magnitude. She also said in light of this uncertainty, it’s critical for people to follow public health guidelines. 

“It is uncharted territory, and you could use the word ‘unprecedented’ for most people alive, which makes it really a big challenge for all of us to manage that uncertainty,” Meltzer-Brody said. “So I think that is all part of the need for people to practice self-care and practice ways of managing their anxiety and using specific tools to do it.”

Meltzer-Brody said she understands the need to be informed — but that it’s also important for people to avoid being inundated by news coverage about coronavirus. She said some ways to manage stress levels include exercising and getting fresh air, engaging in hobbies and remaining connected to friends and family through apps or over the phone. 

First-year graduate student Wai-Sum Leung created a channel in Discord, an app for students to chat in real time with other people. The voice and text chat app was created for gamers to connect with each other, but Leung said she was motivated to share the resource in a Facebook group after seeing threads of people looking for social support while in isolation due to COVID-19 restrictions. She said she did so especially after seeing several posts from students with anxieties about lacking the means or comfort to engage in social distancing at home. 

Since she posted in the group, Leung said multiple Discord chat channels have been set up on topics ranging from pet pictures to mental health. 

“It's encouraging because I see quite a number of other people using it,” Leung said.

Senior Madison Zaphiris was also prompted to create a similar resource for students seeking social and emotional support after posting on Facebook. She received nearly 200 likes on a post about managing mental illness amid reduced University operations and anxieties about the coronavirus. She created a group for mental health support related to COVID-19, which now has over 120 members. 

“I have suffered from mental health issues in the past and I will say having people around is something that’s really helped me with that,” Zaphiris said. “And that’s one of the main reasons that I’m concerned for people like me because isolation is not great.” 

Counseling and Psychological Services Director Dr. Allen O’Barr said CAPS is trying to remain as flexible as possible in light of changing University restrictions. He said although CAPS is encouraging individuals to call in first, there are still staff members available in the office to conduct in-person meetings or medication management, and students have access to CAPS therapists through a 24/7 hotline. 

O'Barr said prior to UNC announcing its move to online classes, CAPS equipped clinical employees with HIPAA-compliant Zoom sessions in anticipation of having to conduct teletherapy on a broader scale. O’Barr said CAPS is also looking into offering group Zoom counseling sessions in an effort to help people feel less isolated.

But one downside to teletherapy is that there are sometimes restrictions in place between the provider and the person seeking treatment, O’Barr said. For example, if the provider has a license in North Carolina, they’re not allowed to treat someone outside of the state through teletherapy means.

“We'd have to help them find something locally, because the license only covers us to do teletherapy within North Carolina,” O’Barr said. “Now, there's been a lot of talk at a federal level about loosening up the restrictions on that type of rule, because I think whenever that rule was put into place, they weren't considering that we were dealing with a pandemic.” 

Leung said she would consider using teletherapy — and even in her own work, she knows she’ll have to adapt to largely using online modes of communication. Leung, who normally lives in Chapel Hill during the school year, is currently staying with her family in Cary. She said while she does have anxieties about this period of isolation and transition to online work, she tries to think about the things she is lucky to have. 

“I'm stressed about my thesis, I'm stressed about research, I'm stressed about school and all that stuff, but I kind of put it (as) those are all very short-term goals in the long run,” Leung said. “I think about the bigger picture, which is we need to get this virus handled, we need to prioritize lives and we need to prioritize public health.” 

To schedule an appointment with CAPS or for general questions, students can the 24/7 hotline (919)966-3658 or email caps@unc.edu. 

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