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The Daily Tar Heel

CAPS director gives mental health advice for UNC students during a remote semester

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DTH Photo Illustration. Mental health expert, Dr. Alan O'Barr, tells UNC students to carve out time for themselves by doing things such as reading books as they near the semester's end.

With the end of the semester drawing near, students are busy balancing exams and online classes — all while trying to make time for their mental health. 

The Daily Tar Heel spoke with Counseling and Psychological Services Director Dr. Allen O’Barr to discuss how to best deal with isolation and balancing work this semester. 

The Daily Tar Heel: Have you noticed changes in the type or volume of mental health cases you’ve seen at CAPS? 

Allen O’Barr: I see some people now with just a sense of being exhausted by it all. There is a lot of loneliness. There is a lot of — hopelessness is probably too strong of a word, but just the sort of sense of like, "Is it ever going to be back the way it was?"

Along with all the strife that’s going on in the nation and then the politics, it’s really just weighing heavily on a lot of people. And you know, we all have stuff we’re struggling with even without COVID. It just serves to amplify that.

Since the weather turned a little cooler, I see individuals really having trouble staying afloat. I wish I had better news. 

DTH: When it comes to students’ mental health, is there anything that you think they should be aware of to notice if they need to start reaching out or start taking care? 

AO: That’s two questions. One is what are you watching out for in your friends, and the other is what are you watching out for in yourself. Because sometimes it’s a lot easier to see it in your friends. Maybe they don’t answer a call, or maybe they just don’t text back and kind of go dark.

I think everybody is different based on what their baseline is. But if you’re not naturally a pessimist and you start finding yourself in a more hopeless, pessimistic place, I think that’s a red flag. Yes, we’re all socially isolated. Yes, it is a hard and stressful time. But if you get seduced by the media, it can really pull you into a negative direction. When you’re socially isolated, it’s really hard to have somebody else be like, "Hey man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not how it really is."

So if you notice that you’re not who you used to be, as far as your attitude and your energy and your excitement for life, find a way to rediscover that joy. Note that as a red flag and say, "You know what? I’m taking off the next couple of days. Like, I don’t care, I’m taking it off."

If I’m not in a place of feeling hopeful and well-balanced, all my gifts are gone. Therefore, I have to take care of myself in order to be able to help other individuals. 

DTH: Do you have any tips for students on keeping their mental health on the up and up, considering that a lot of them have very stressful and tight schedules? 

AO: Like a person with a really busy schedule, how do they do self-care? Just schedule it in. I totally prefer to not be scheduled, but I have a really scheduled life. Today’s a perfect example; I had an hour and a half in the middle of the day where I didn’t have anything to do. I could have cut my phone off and paid attention to yoga and whatever I needed.

But I didn’t — I was like, "I’ve only got an hour and a half. I think I’m just going to keep grinding through this so that I can get as much done as possible."  

That was the mistake. I would have been better off to just cut my phone off and take my hour and a half. I think that’s the anecdote there, you just schedule it in and respect the schedule. You might think, "Well, I’m not really worth it," but you are. If you don’t take care of yourself, everything else falls apart. 

DTH: Do you have any suggestions for resources or groups that students can turn to during this time? 

AO: Well, of course, CAPS is always there. Counseling is always there and yet, not everybody’s first instinct is to turn to counseling. It really depends on the person, how you answer this question. One of the things I would say is what did you used to have passion about, what did you used to love? Let me just schedule in that thing that I used to love. It has been like eight months. Eight months is a long time, you can actually forget where you got joy from. 

I can sit around and be feeling overloaded and completely worked to death and feeling like nothing’s ever going to be better. If I seek reassurance of that, like if I call a friend and be like, "This is so bad," I’m not really helping myself. 

But if I think the positive — just the other day, I plugged in something cheery like, "Life is beautiful" on the internet. And all of a sudden, all these things came up and I was like, "Look at all the people out there who are so positive." A big chunk of the world is thinking that we can be better than we were before COVID, like we can be a better people. We can learn to work together. 

I think those are the types of things just to remember. We are an exceptionally complicated and beautiful and complex species. It’s not just all going to go down the tubes. We’re here to do big things. Use your gift, contribute to the change and make it a better place. Sometimes you just need somebody else to tell you that. 

CAPS is available by hotline 24/7 at (919)-966-3658. Links for CAPS support groups for COVID and personal wellness can be found here.

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