COVID-19 has increased mental health struggles among current and former SDSU students

by Kayla Brown, Contributor

For decades, practicing self-care has been a popular coping mechanism for adults during times of high stress. However, the coronavirus pandemic has brought on unexpected stressors, and according to the United Nations, COVID-19 “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis.”

Some have had mental health disorders before the pandemic. For years, they have been practicing self-care and facing the challenges of depression and anxiety; while simultaneously attempting to pursue their dreams.

Victoria Leyva, a media studies senior at San Diego State, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18 years old. For the last two years, she has been stable due to the right combination of medication, but this year things feel different.

“I have felt more depressed lately, especially during the summer, because I wouldn’t get out as often as I’d like to, unfortunately,” Leyva said. “However, I am anticipating a bigger shift in my depression within the next few weeks actually because typically, my seasonal depression kicks in.”  

Leyva experiences depression each year when daylight saving time ends. It usually lasts for about two months. She says her COVID-19 induced depression will only add more weight to what she already carries every Fall.

“I try to maintain a good sense of humor about the whole thing,” she said. “I feel that helps as much as possible, or as much as it can help.” 

Leyva focuses on hobbies and maintaining her support system to help relieve her symptoms and stress. 

“I’ve been reading a lot, I text a lot of friends in order to stay in contact and let them know I’m thinking about them during this difficult time, and I try and see my family,” she said. “I pet my cat often, and I crochet projects that seem never-ending cause it’s good to have something to focus my time on that isn’t just sitting and wallowing in the darkness of the pandemic,” 

Leyva learned to accept her bipolar diagnosis and face it head-on. Maintaining mental health is of utmost importance, she said.

“For others that are struggling with their mental health, I would urge them to reach out to friends,” she said. “I think that it’s very important to have a sense of community right now, especially when things seem very dire and dark.

“Just because it’s happening in our heads in reaction to the pandemic does not mean it’s fake or imaginary. It’s a very traumatic thing to be happening to an entire population at once.”

Liora Naor graduated from SDSU in the Fall of 2019 with a bachelor’s in voice performance and faced unique challenges of her own.

When she was 12 years old, Naor was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it is an autoimmune disorder, which means her immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in her body.

“The hardest part for me is always having to be on my guard while out in public or worrying about friends and family’s safety,” she said. “I’m immunocompromised, so I have to be extra cautious everywhere I go, and careful with who I’m interacting with,” she said.

Naor was also diagnosed with depression and general anxiety disorder 13 years ago and has been taking medication for four years. She’s considering switching medications because they haven’t been as effective in the last year. 

“The pandemic has had me backsliding quite a bit,” she said. “My lows seem to be lower and stay longer.”

She was in a better headspace than she had been in a long time at the start of quarantine in March. However, due to the pandemic, Naor lost out on two major career opportunities. 

“Not just because of the pandemic, but with all of the political and social issues going on, my sense of hopelessness has really increased,” she said. “ The uncertainty of it all makes it hard for me to make any future plans in my career and life.” 

For her, nostalgia and exercises promoting relaxation are effective coping strategies.

“I’ve been rewatching old favorite shows to gain a sense of comfort and familiarity,” Naor said. “I’ve learned some breathing and meditation techniques to help curb anxiety.” 

For others who struggle with their mental health, Naor wants them to know it is okay to speak out. 

“I know how hard it is to talk to people about it because you don’t want to be a burden or don’t think it’s worth it, but it really does help to verbalize all the internal crap bouncing around in your head,” she said.

Naor also said the use of medication to provide relief could make a huge difference for people battling mental health issues. 

“Don’t be afraid of needing medication,” she said.  “It’s trial-and-error sometimes to find ones that work, but antidepressants have literally saved my life.” 

Lisa Williams earned a single subject teaching credential at SDSU in 2018. She has struggled with anxiety and depression since she was 8 years old. When she finally was diagnosed and received treatment, she was 21 years old. 

She agreed to interview by email because phone calls heighten her anxiety.

Williams says COVID-19 has taken a toll on her in multiple ways. 

 “The constant stress of the situation (especially since I work with the public and am so exposed) has left me without much energy to do anything but survive,” she wrote. “The people around me are also stressed out, which can lead to a constant state of tension.”

Williams’ roommate is at higher risk of contracting the virus because she has asthma, so when she is not working, Williams is usually at home. 

“I do have anxiety and tend to be overstimulated by social situations, however, so staying home most of the time has been beneficial for my mental health in that way,” she said. 

Williams says her journey with mental illnesses taught her to prioritize herself and fulfill her own needs. 

“Sometimes it’s not about ‘fixing’ my mental health, it’s about having compassion for myself and realizing that I don’t have to do things that cause me distress,” she said.

She has a wealth of advice for others coping with pandemic stress and coming to terms with their own mental health needs. Her tip– embrace the moments when things don’t go well.

“It’s okay to be struggling. It’s not a sign of weakness or failure — it’s just a natural response to an intense situation,” Williams said. “Have compassion for yourself, and try not to push yourself beyond what you’re currently capable of. It’s okay to rest.” 

Overall, COVID-19 continues to affect current and former students, staff and faculty members alike in the same way. As the pandemic continues, people continue to feel uncertain about what lies ahead. The most important thing we can do is focus on what’s happening now.

“One big issue a lot of people are having right now is coping with uncertainty,” Williams said.“Instead of focusing on how uncertain the future is, try to focus on your present and the things you can control right now. 

“There is no shame in not feeling okay.”

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