Noel McDermott

Psychotherapist @NoelMcDermott Advises on COVID-19 & Higher Education: Supporting Students Mental Health & Wellbeing on #SuicidePrevention Day

Thousands of students will be heading off to university this month, but with the threat of COVID-19 still amongst us, the student experience will be very different. University life for first years is synonymous with a hectic Freshers’ week and packed lecture theatres, but for the students of 2020, this will sadly not be the case with online lectures and virtual Freshers’ week the way forward. For many students leaving home and starting this next phase can be challenging in itself, add to this a global pandemic and It is quite understandable that many will struggle with feelings of anxiety, stress and worry. 

An unintended consequence of this year’s new normal for students is that the various how to survive guides written on getting through your first term, year etc are now redundant. The serious side to this is that we are in foreign territory currently and students are rewriting the books in many ways.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott offers some tips for students on how to make the most of the experience:

  • For everyone, fresher or returner this is a brand-new university experience. Assume you are starting afresh and be cautious and kind to yourself 
  • Embrace the opportunity and what is on offer, don’t compare it to the previous years’ experience (yours if you’re returning, or other people’s if you are a fresher). Try to approach this experience for what is it. Block, unfriend (on social media) those voices that say your experience this year is worse compared to others. It is new and unique, you are forging history
  • Assume you will find it challenging and difficult and act accordingly. You don’t have an internal map to follow so ensure you proceed with caution so as not to get lost
  • Prioritise self-care, and ensure you have in place people you know well, who you can talk to if you feel odd or you notice changes in mood, appetite, weight, sleep patterns, etc
  • Focus on global healthy behaviour, exercise, sleep, hydration, talk about your feelings 
  • Share your experiences, good and bad with others, it’s of service to share this and it will help others. Don’t become trapped in Instagram perfection, share the warts and challenges. Others will open up to you and share their struggles as well, reducing any tendency toward perfectionism is a very good thing to do
  • We are all in this boat together, resist any temptation to single yourself out as uniquely struggling

The challenges ahead

We are emotional beings and the loss of Freshers’ week is a big thing. No university is allowing the return to happen in the way it used to and even if it is still happening, Freshers’ week has gone online. Students are being banned from having guests stay with them if they are in university accommodation and strict social distancing exists everywhere, because young people currently represent the highest growth rate for the virus in the population. Young people, like the rest of us, are fed up with the restrictions to our lives, but also may be more complacent about the risks because they are lower for them, but they are certainly not none existent. There is going to be a challenge for universities in policing and maintaining social distancing especially as we come to a first Winter with this virus and all experts expect a significant second wave. 

Possible decrease in other sociological and psychological threats

One of the unintended consequences of this year’s new normal is that we are not likely to see horrific headlines about binge drinking, sexual assaults, violence and other risky behaviours that have come to bedevil many fresher experiences. It’s important to note that going to university has historically been lots of fun but also extremely challenging, so challenging that many self-help books and much support has been designed to help young people overcome the problems associated with being in such a hothouse environment. It seems clear that the measures introduced to ensure we are safe from the virus will in the context of University, ensure we are safe from many other sociological and psychological threats. 

Suicide rates have been consistently rising for several years now and the indications are that the pandemic will have increased that*.  

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: 

“Increased awareness of the mental health impact of Covid has opened up the opportunity for us to work more directly with the mental health issues of the population at large. Suicide is a significant risk factor in young people starting university and the social bubbles and increased vigilance of the institutions allow us a unique opportunity to deal with this issue very directly”. 

Ask for Help 

It is important to remember that support is always available, if you are concerned about yourself or a friend, don’t wait till you get help. Reach out to the university who will offer a Student’s Health Service providing wellbeing support and counselling. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, early help for a mental health issue can make a big difference.

Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He is the founder and CEO of three organisations, Psychotherapy and Consultancy Ltd, Sober Help Ltd and Mental Health Works Ltd. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources in order to help clients access help without leaving home.

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