Navigating Graduate Student Mental Health During a Pandemic

Erica Avery

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety and security constitute the second basic need after physiological needs such as food, water, rest, and warmth. A global pandemic, however, gives us an underlying sense of uncertainty surrounding our safety and a nagging feeling of risk every time we leave our homes.

Thus, it is easy to feel like the subsequent needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of belongingness—relationships, self-esteem, fulfillment, and so on—are not only harder to focus on mentally and emotionally when safety is the priority. They are also farther from reach during a pandemic when societal procedures shift away from gatherings, events, and work- or career-related endeavors.

When you add the impacts of isolation, financial stress, altered daily routines, and lack of physical activity, as well as concerning media news about COVID-19, civil unrest, natural disasters, politics, and more, it’s easy to see why the pandemic has contributed to many people’s mental illnesses, including my own. I have personally battled mental health conditions comorbid with my diagnosis of fibromyalgia syndrome in 2012. However, even people who don’t have pre-existing or diagnosed mental illnesses may be experiencing bouts of psychological symptoms triggered by the prolonged stress of the pandemic.

The severity of my struggles has waxed and waned (at times dramatically) over the course of the pandemic with additional influences like summer weather, COVID-19 infected family members, the November election etc., but I always came back to a few core approaches to ground myself. I hope that these experiences and strategies can be helpful to anyone. Here are a few techniques I’ve used to combat a decline in my mental health over the past eight months during the pandemic.

Battling Stressors Caused By the Virus Itself

A lot of my own anxiety comes from uncertainty and lack of control. This virus has taken away a lot of my control in these terms: not knowing whether I’ll get COVID-19 when I leave my home (even if I’m following guidelines the best I can); having no control over my environment when I leave; and feeling helpless as my family in northern New Jersey and New York City was in the initial epicenter.

As scientists, we are in a unique position during a historic global pandemic. For instance, I know several fellow graduate students who are doing research on COVID-19. Johns Hopkins University is one of the leading institutions producing COVID-19 data, and we’re right here.

Thus, it can be frustrating for us to see so many people ignoring safety guidelines. This kind of understanding can make it even more difficult for some people to venture away from the safety of their homes. As the pandemic dragged on, it felt like life had become a series of events happening to me that I had no control over, and I just had to endure them.

One way I combated my spiraling negative thoughts was to grasp onto the little things—especially the small successes and choices I did have control of—instead of filtering them out. I had the choice over what to eat for breakfast or what to wear. I could do my part for the planet by recycling and could support businesses owned by black entrepreneurs.

I was also given the advice to let myself feel distracted from the news of how horrible COVID-19 was, because the guilt would still be there when I got back. I had the choice to let myself grab on to the small moments of happiness life was giving me, like a funny meme, a new single by my favorite band, or a snuggle with my cats, and not ignore them or diminish their joy just because “I should” feel horrible during a deadly pandemic.

The unknown can bring on anxiety, but knowing how clinical trials work and knowing how to understand and analyze academic research publications about COVID-19 is an advantage that may bring us some comfort. Moreover, we have the expertise to help inform others who may not be scientifically literate but who are eager to know what the takeaways and lessons are from science’s understanding of COVID-19. This is a chance for us to see the tangible impacts of science on people’s lives.

Reframing Thoughts

Lockdown for graduate students at my institution lasted three months, and even now, we remain on limited schedules. As people who put a lot of pressure on ourselves, it’s understandable that grad students feel guilt about a lack of productivity away from the lab, especially when inability to focus is inhibiting any of the few productive activities we could engage in.

Some people found solace channeling their energy into cooking, losing weight, or learning a new language. Personally, while I was watching everyone’s posts on social media about their accomplishments during lockdown, there were days when depression made it a Herculean task for me to get out of bed. At these times, it was important to remind myself that my priority was simply staying safe. My job was to not catch or spread COVID-19. Staying home was being productive.

Just as I redefined productivity, I’ve had to do a lot of reframing of how I look at things during the pandemic. The words we use have a bigger impact on our outlook than we realize sometimes. Simply changing you language to be more positive in subtle ways can drastically change how you feel.

For example, I’ve listened to many therapists’ and life coaches’ podcasts, seminars, and advice videos on YouTube lately. Therapist & Author Marisa Peer says to try replacing, “I’m stuck at home,” with, “I’m safe at home.” Even saying, “I’m optimistic,” instead of “I’m not worried,” removes the negative word “not” from the picture altogether and can be helpful.

Fighting a Lack of Motivation

We had all this extra time spent at home; some of us still do. Yet often, I wouldn’t feel motivated enough to take advantage of the time to start a task that seemed too exhausting or daunting. Eventually, depression can cause you to leave even simple tasks or activities you once enjoyed untouched.

For example, simple exercises just seemed too much—that is until I started telling myself, “Make your goal to do just one rep—just one. And once you’re already holding a weight or doing a pushup, doing the rest of the set will be easy, and inertia will take over.” It’s the same concept as saying “just one more episode,” when watching Netflix. Before we know it, it’s 3:00 a.m., and we’ve finished the whole season.

Then I started using the same strategy for other activities. Wash one dish. Fold one shirt. Make your goals as small as possible; break big goals into smaller ones and you’ll feel more accomplished. It seems ironic to tell that to people who are literally tackling a Ph.D. that takes years. I know. We’re used to lofty goals.

Another good motivator I found was accountability. In conversations with other grad students, it seemed many of us eventually began having trouble working from home after so long. However, we began thinking of it like going to the gym. Having a gym buddy holds you accountable and motivates you to go. Having a Zoom study hall—even just sitting in silence for long periods while we all did our work—kept us accountable.  

Remember, Progress Isn’t Linear

Rather than looking at my mental health as a whole over the pandemic period and saying it hasn’t been good, my therapist encouraged me not to think like that and to take it one day at a time instead. Maybe yesterday I couldn’t sleep because of anxious thoughts, but today I didn’t fall down that rabbit hole. At least now I can say, “Today was a success.” That’s far better than overgeneralizing the whole of the pandemic as bad for my mental health all around, and as a result being too hard on myself for my “failure.”

While I was working on improving my mental health during the first few months of the pandemic, remembering that sometimes it’s “two steps forward, one step back” was key. As long as there was a general upward trend in my trajectory, it was okay that there would be dips in my mental state along the way. There’s no direct route toward improvement.

Some helpful apps for me during this time have been Calm, HeadSpace, and the cognitive behavioral therapy program, SilverCloud Health. Many therapist and counseling services are being offered virtually through telemedicine as well, including websites like BetterHelp, which even lets you text therapists. Mental Health America is the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to the needs of those living with mental illness, and NoStigmas is a peer support community that can help you learn more about mental illness. Lastly, there are many motivational speakers, life coaches, therapists and psychologists, and even neuroscientists out there on YouTube as well as podcasts offering advice, insight, words of encouragement, and coping strategies.

Therapist & Author Marisa Peer says to visualize the negative news, comments, or events that affect your mental health as being something physical that someone hands you, as if it were similar to legal papers being served. However, you have the choice not to take it, to say, “No, I’m not going to let that in,” and leave it with the person offering it instead. Accept the reality without letting in the negative energy attached to it.

The following is information on when to get help from the Mayo Clinic:

Each mental health condition has its own signs and symptoms. In general, however, professional help might be needed if you experience:

  • Marked changes in personality, eating, or sleeping patterns
  • An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • Feelings of disconnection or withdrawal from normal activities
  • Unusual or "magical" thinking
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression, or apathy
  • Thoughts or statements about suicide or harming others
  • Substance misuse
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior

Contact info for 24/7 emergency crisis hotlines are as follows:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) 
  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Referral Helpline: 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)