As part of its observance of Mental Health Week, Niagara University’s Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement hosted the panel presentation, “Managing Mental Health in the Era of COVID-19,” on Nov. 18, 2020. The panel featured four Niagara University alumni who currently work in the field of mental health counseling and was moderated by Dr. Timothy Osberg, professor of psychology, and Dr. J. Shannon Hodges, professor of clinical mental health counseling.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the mental health issues experienced by individuals of all ages. According to studies, there has been a threefold increase in the rates of anxiety and of serious suicidal thoughts, and a fourfold increase in the rates of depression. Substance abuse has increased 13%, and trauma-related symptoms have increased 25%. In addition, people who get COVID-19 are 65% more likely to develop a mental health disorder, often within the first three months of diagnosis.

The panelists, all graduates of NU’s master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling (three of whom also graduated from Niagara University’s bachelor’s degree program in psychology) offered suggestions to help maintain good mental health during the pandemic. Amber Boyer, ’15, M.S.Ed.’17; Allison Kilmer Filosofos, ’12, M.S.Ed.’15; Jessica Whitley, ’09, M.S.Ed.’15; and Sabrina Khandai, M.S.Ed.’14; shared both their post-graduation experiences and their advice to help get through the coming months.

All emphasized the importance of self-care. Taking time each day to monitor what you are feeling, both emotionally and physically; engaging in grounding; establishing a routine; exercising and eating well; and doing things mindfully can help keep you calm when facing stressors, they recommended. Limiting exposure to the news and practicing gratitude and focusing on the positive can also help.

“Trying to have learned hopefulness is something everyone can attain,” Boyer said. “It’s a choice in your thinking to decide that today, I’m going to be grateful for what I have and what I have control over, and that the family members I do have are safe and healthy, I am safe and healthy. It means daily reflections and opportunities to practice hopefulness.”

Accepting that it is “okay to feel how you feel” can also help validate feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, and reaching out frequently to those you love is “of the upmost importance,” said Filosofos.

Whitley reminded those in attendance that mental health professionals were also experiencing the same feelings as those they serve, and Khandai noted that COVID fatigue, which is happening especially within families, may cause additional conflict as the holidays approach. She added that she has noticed her clients experiencing an overall sense of grief for the things that didn’t happen this year, and that she encourages them to refocus on what they can control in their lives, including creating a new sense of normal based on their current conditions and accumulating as many positive experiences as possible.

“We want to fill our day with as many positive and feel-good experiences and positive emotions as we can,” she said. “Basically, doing anything that’s going to fill your cup back up.”

Mental Health Week events were offered conjunction with Best Self Behavioral Health Inc. and the National Council for Mental Health First Aid, and funded through a grant from the Mother Cabrini Foundation.

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