Self-Care for Campus Mental Health Professionals During COVID-19

By: Carolyn Reinach Wolf, Esq.

As we ring in the new year, COVID-19 is still very much a part of our daily lives. Mental health professionals and other staff in a helping role on college campuses will continue to play a crucial role in helping students manage their stress, anxiety, and other related issues as they continue to navigate changing safety protocols and procedures, social distancing, and remote learning. Helping professionals engaging in these types of support roles on campus are likely to be required to demonstrate high levels of compassion and empathy on a regular basis and are consistently exposed to students or clients experiencing trauma or stress. Consistent exposure to trauma and stressful situations, without organizational support or the time to refuel and debrief, can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. Now more than ever, as we enter almost one year of this new normal, helping professionals must practice self-care and assess their own needs.

While it is normal to experience stress, anxiety, and sadness during times of crisis, you must be aware of the serious warning signs so that you know when to seek help. Prolonged anxiety or stress can lead to depression, substance or alcohol use, or other compulsive behaviors. Take note of issues such as having difficulty sleeping, concentrating, or making decisions, feeling especially fatigued, over or under eating, having difficulty controlling anxious or fearful thoughts, being irritable and lacking patience, or engaging in other unhealthy or compulsive behaviors. The following chart provides more examples of warning signs that you may be experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout.

Warning Signs for Burnout and Compassion Fatigue:

It is time for everyone, especially helping professionals, to take a break, recharge their batteries, and get ready for what may be a difficult semester. Make it a priority, or a New Year’s resolution, to assess and manage your own mental health needs before returning to campus, whether virtually or in person, for the next semester.

Consider the following 10 strategies for improving your self-care and preventing burnout and compassion fatigue:

  1. Increase Self-Awareness: Listen to your mind and body and pay attention to when you may be experiencing the warning signs identified above.
  2. Engage with Others: Although it may feel exhausting and like it is just another thing you have to do, seek opportunities to connect with others. Avoiding isolation and connecting with people can go a long way in helping you recharge.
  3. Disrupt routine and engage creativity: Break up your day/week/workload by finding different types of projects to work on. Be sure to not just take on more work but to balance your workload with opportunities that allow you to use your brain in new ways.
  4. Be okay with saying “no”: You can’t do everything. Be honest and straightforward about what is on your plate and how taking on another assignment will affect your workload.
  5. Create sustainable work practices: Self-care is about more than just bubble baths and wine (although those are great!). Work to create sustainable practices in your work structure such as setting limits on the number of meetings per day, blocking off time on your calendar for paperwork/email catch-up, or avoid checking email at home, so as to prevent burnout in the first place.
  6. Seek supervision and guidance: Have regular conversations with your supervisor to discuss your workload, appropriate job duties, scope creep, etc. Also, be sure to discuss difficult cases or incidents in order to get guidance and debrief.
  7. Remember stories of hope and success: In the darkness, find the light. When you are feeling overwhelmed, burnt-out, or just need a pick-up, remember those times you helped someone or were able to achieve your goals.
  8. Diminish intensity where you can: Recognizing that you may not always have control over the intensity of events in your life, try to diminish it where you can. In other words, choose relationships and friendships that are supportive and calming, read books or watch tv shows that you find relaxing and enjoyable, remove yourself from unproductive or toxic committees, groups, etc.
  9. Share the load: Don’t be afraid to ask for help and delegate your work where appropriate.
  10. Seek professional help when needed: This is difficult work and it is okay to seek professional help. Remember, therapy can be helpful to the helpers too.

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