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Home » Discover Rackham » Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19

Meghan Duffy is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the chair of the Rackham Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force. Dana Turjeman is a Ph.D. student in quantitative marketing in the Ross School of Business, where she is also the wellbeing and research productivity chair in the school’s Ph.D. forum. Together, they created the following blog post offering the perspectives of a mentor and a graduate student who are trying to figure out how to maintain mental health—“and also hopefully some productivity, but that definitely comes second to physical and mental health”—while social distancing.

Here’s their advice:

Most importantly: your health and the health of your loved ones comes first.

There has been advice on how to stay productive while working from home, and we understand the motivation behind this. But we think it’s important to note that this is *not* business as usual. Things will be different, and it’s important to emphasize that physical and mental health come first. This should always be true, but it’s especially important right now.

Maintain a routine plan out your working hours, exercise, sleep, eating regularly, connections with others, work breaks, etc. (Note: this should also include keeping a sense of weekends, taking some days off from work.)

Maybe you already were a routine kind of person – if so, great! Keep it up, adjusting your schedule to accommodate the new reality. Maybe you are not a schedule person. Take a growth mindset and give it a shot now! A lack of structure can be tough for mental health. Create structure as much as possible.

If you can, try to get outside every day, to non-crowded places with fresh air. This might not hold to those who must stay in strict isolation (which is different from social distancing) and cannot get closer to others. But, to the extent possible, try to get sunlight and fresh air, even when indoors.

Make sure you keep up other aspects of your normal routine. Meghan remembers how, when she was writing up her dissertation and her advisor was in a different state, she was thinking that she could just stay home all the time. At that time, she got advice along the lines of: “You need to come in at least for lunch or else first you’ll stop getting dressed, then you’ll stop showering, then you’ll stop brushing your teeth”. He had a point. So, while we aren’t going to gather in person for lunch now, it is still important to keep up normal routines!

Be flexible, and be kind with yourself and others as everyone figures out how to adjust.

At the same time, be flexible. Modify your plans. Experiment with new approaches.

We’re all going to be learning on the fly. You will misjudge how much you can do. Your initial routine may end up not working well for you. You will realize things work differently than you thought they would. This is all normal. Be flexible, and be kind with yourself and others as everyone figures out how to adjust.

Arrange virtual coffees or lunches with colleagues, even if you didn’t have those before. Start with some small talk. (Bonus points if some of the small talk is *not* about coronavirus!)

Social distancing is important, but really it’s physical distancing that we need, not social isolation. So, to the extent possible, try to connect with folks virtually.

Stay connected, but not too connected.

The internet helps a lot with maintaining connections with people (which is good!), but it’s also easy to get sucked in in ways that are not helpful. There are real downsides to anxiety scrolling through social media and constantly checking the news. Set limits on where you get your news and how often you check it (e.g., something like: “I will only check X sites, and I will only do that for 15 minutes four times a day” or “I will not check social media or news within 1 hour of bedtime”.) If you feel you check the news in ways that harm your mental health or productivity, and need an external boundary, try using “website blockers” on PC/Mac, and/or one of the many iPhone/Android apps. Some examples: WebsiteBlocker, ColdTurkey, HeyFocus.

If a partner/housemate is staying with you at home, make sure to respect each other’s work time and routine. Try to get a break from time to time – by sitting in another room or, contrary to that, arranging fun games together to reduce the working stress. Being together more than you’re used to might cause stress and tension.

Coming back to a common theme: we’re all trying to figure out new ways of working and living. Be kind, be compassionate, and communicate clearly and regularly.

Find an accountability partner – someone you “promise” to show measurable progress of work to, and who will nudge you gently in the right direction if you’re not holding up to your promises.

This may be a lab mate or a friend or someone else in your grad program or a colleague or a mentor. At first, it might help to check in pretty frequently—maybe three times a week or every week day. Keep the check in format short. One that Meghan has used (modified from resources from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity) has: 1) My goals for yesterday were; 2) I accomplished; 3) My goals for today are . Depending on who you are checking in with, it might also make sense to explicitly check in about non-work stuff (e.g., are you maintaining connections with folks? Taking breaks from work? Getting sleep and exercise?)

If progress on a project is paused or delayed because you’re unable to collect data/run studies in the lab etc., try to think of all the things you can do otherwise—literature review, writing introduction of a paper, ideation for another paper etc.

In Meghan’s group, as of last week, the only lab work going on is: 1) maintaining cultures (which cannot be frozen, unfortunately) and, 2) finishing up one experiment (the last block of an experiment that is the last chapter of the dissertation of a student who is finishing this summer). Everything else is on hold, and all but three people in the lab have been told to work from home, and we’ve discussed how even those two things that are currently going on might need to stop. The folks staying at home are analyzing data, planning for future experiments, and working on literature reviews and meta-analyses. It will be interesting to see if there’s a notable increase in lit reviews & meta-analyses in the next year!

For the PIs/advisors/mentors, some things to keep in mind as you think about where people should work should include things like how they would get there (e.g., would they need to take public transit?), what other responsibilities they have (remember that many schools are closed now), their health, their comfort levels with being out (some people will not feel safe coming in and that should be respected), and possible impacts on their careers. For the last one, though, the bar has to be in a different place than it normally would – productivity is going to be impacted by this.

Read the full post on Duffy’s blog, Dynamic Ecology.

 

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