As we brace ourselves for the likely COVID-19 spikes this winter, which may lead to more lockdowns, students' mental health will likely face increased strain once again. Generation Z is already known as the loneliest generation, so the uncertainty of when the country will be able to safely return to “normal” again keeps some students on edge.

In addition to affecting students' personal lives, symptoms of anxiety and depression--such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating--can have negative effects on students' academic performance. In order to combat these challenges, various USC wellness leaders offered advice on how to maintain mental and physical wellness this winter.

David Atash, co-president of Active Minds at USC, a student mental health advocacy group, shared what he has been doing and what he encourages members of the organization to do to keep their mental health in balance.

“I always preach, you have to find what works for you, But for me, what works is sticking to a routine and having a schedule,” Atash said in an interview with Annenberg Media.

Atash also spoke on an acronym to help students help others with their emotions.

“V-A-R stands for Validate, Appreciate and Refer. The first thing that you do is validate their feelings. If somebody tells you, ‘Hey, you know, I’m really stressed out about midterms or finals coming up.’ You have to validate that. ‘I understand that you’re feeling that way,’” Atash said. “Second of all, you have to appreciate the fact that they’re reaching out to you. ‘Thank you for opening up to me.’ Then, refer to resources.”

Instead of following broad statements about how students should work on their mental health during the upcoming months, USC psychology professor Leslie Berntsen advises students to find out what works for them.

“I don’t want to be the person who’s like, buy flowers, and that makes things better. Because that’s ridiculous to say, it’s gonna be so different for everyone,” Berntsen said. “Do little things here or there and see what just brings you joy, whatever joy means, see what brings you joy these days and then just keep doing it.”

In addition to finding what works for them, students should remember that they are not alone. They might be secluded, but safe interactions with others are a way for them to keep their mental state in balance, as Steve Hsu, a professor of stress management at USC, says.

“You’ve got to find other ways to interact. I know students have been spending time jamming with their friends or calling or texting,” Hsu said. “Get out with somebody outdoors. One of the strategies I mentioned was pets. Pets are great. Even though they can’t talk to you, they do provide a sense of comfort and cure loneliness.”

According to Sarah Van Orman, M.D., associate vice provost for student affairs and chief student health officer, one of USC’s biggest issues in the past semester was being understaffed in the counseling department. As a result, she says the university has been continuing to hire more staff to solve this problem.

“The one thing I would stress is that, you know, that students should have easy access to mental health now and into the spring,” Van Orman said in her briefing on Oct. 22.

Acknowledging USC’s unfamiliarity with how a full semester in quarantine would work, Van Orman said that the lack of a break in the fall semester was likely a cause for stress for many students. She says USC is hoping the newly announced wellness days will combat this issue.

“The other thing that we know is very clear is that the compressed semester has caused a lot of stress for students.We are really looking [at] right now, for the spring semester, how we build in the wellness days, and are very intentional about [how] even though we don’t have a spring break, we create those places for students to decompress, to de-stress,” Van Orman said.

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